By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
Associated Press Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In New Orleans, a dire warning to flee
emptied the city before Hurricane Gustav in early September. In
Houston less than two weeks later, a plea to "hunker down" might
have kept evacuation routes from clogging before Hurricane Ike
The strategies were different but the results largely the same:
Both cities avoided repeating disastrous evacuations that cost
lives during the deadly 2005 hurricane season.
Many Gulf Coast cities overhauled their disaster plans after
hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago. With another
destructive storm season ending Sunday, emergency planners are
reflecting on lessons learned from Gustav and Ike to get ready for
Retired Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, New Orleans' emergency
preparedness director, said residents deserve much of the credit
for a successful Gustav evacuation.
"The number-one reason we succeeded for Gustav is that our
citizens listened to us," he said.
Following catastrophic failures in evacuating people before and
after Katrina, Louisiana emergency planners developed a model
system using public transportation. It paid off for Gustav, the
first time it was used.
Two days before Gustav made landfall, New Orleans Mayor Ray
Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for what he called the
"mother of all storms" and warned residents they wouldn't get
emergency services if they stayed.
In a mass migration orchestrated by state officials, an
estimated 2 million residents of coastal Louisiana evacuated before
Gustav crashed ashore 90 miles southwest of the city Sept. 1.
The number of people left behind was minimal compared to
Katrina, when thousands sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome
and New Orleans convention center and were stranded for days
without food and water.
Gustav was blamed for 46 deaths in Louisiana and caused $1.9
billion in insured losses, numbers dwarfed by Katrina's death toll
of more than 1,600 and $41.1 billion in property damage.
"To our knowledge," Sneed said, "no city has ever evacuated
their entire population, and we feel 97 percent of the city's
population did evacuate."
There were some flaws: Evacuees were taken to shelters without
showers or adequate medical care; a state contractor who was
supposed to provide 700 buses for the evacuation only delivered
311; and victims endured long lines for disaster food stamps.
Thomas Sanchez, a University of Utah professor who studies
evacuation planning, said cities can't plan for disasters in a
"This kind of planning really has to happen on a regional
basis, and that's not what we're finding," Sanchez said. "It's
more than about a city figuring out how to take care of itself."
Texas learned that the hard way. In 2005, before Hurricane Rita
struck, its evacuation plan required Houston to wait until 2
million people on the Gulf Coast had moved past the city, which
sits 50 miles inland. But city leaders ordered Houston to evacuate
Hundreds of thousands jammed the freeways in sweltering late
September, stalled for days. Some 110 people died in accidents or
from exposure or heart attacks. Only a handful died in the storm
itself, which missed the Houston area and hit mostly rural
By the time Hurricane Ike's path was apparent - a direct hit on
Galveston Island and Houston - mandatory evacuations were ordered
for coastal counties and a few Houston ZIP codes along waterways
sure to flood. Everyone else was ordered to stay put.
"We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the
Texas expression, hunker down," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the
county's chief administrator, said at the time.
This time, the freeway was jammed leading away from Galveston
immediately after the order, but by late afternoon on Sept. 12, the
day before Ike arrived, many evacuees had made it north of Houston.
"'Hunker down' definitely got the message across," said
Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for the Harris County emergency
Still, in part because of the direct hit on Galveston and
Houston, Ike was blamed for at least 72 deaths, including 37 in
Texas, and caused $8.1 billion in insured losses, eclipsing the
$5.6 billion in damage attributed to Rita.
The 2008 hurricane season was one of the most active on record,
with 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes, forming in the
Atlantic. Five of the eight hurricanes were at least Category 3
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed
to this report.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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