Looking at Evacuation Plans Five Years After Ike

Residents of low-lying areas of Galveston County were advised to evacuate before water covered the roads.
As Hurricane Ike bore down on the region five years ago this week, many local residents wrestled with the question of whether to stay or leave. Ike hit the region only three years after Hurricane Rita, when thousands of people found themselves stranded in gridlock on local roadways. In the second of a four-part series on the fifth anniversary of Ike, KUHF's Gail Delaughter talked to local officials about the lessons they learned on getting people out of harm's way.  

TxDOT's Raquelle Lewis says she'll never forget what she saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

"It has an impact on every sense. It's what you see. It's what you smell. It's what you hear. And it's overwhelming."

TxDOT crews came in from all over the state to make repairs and clear debris that covered coastal highways.  But transportation officials were at work long before the storm hit, as they looked at ways to avoid the panicked evacuation that clogged freeways just three years before.  

DVD Narration: "As we saw during Hurricane Rita, evacuating an area this large and populated is extremely difficult without a coordinated and cooperative effort from all citizens."

A new emergency preparedness video advises Harris County's four million residents to find out if they're in a surge zone. When a hurricane approaches, evacuations are announced by zip code. And if you don't live in a surge zone ...

Clip from Emmett Campaign Ad: "Hunker down." 

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett's popular catch phase even became part of a campaign ad.

"There's no reason to leave unless you're in danger of a storm surge. You're better off staying in place, sheltering in place, hunkering down, whatever the term is these days."

Emmett says sheltering-in-place helps those people who do need to leave. He's talking about people in the coastal areas who have to head north on I-45.
 
"We try not to call evacuations here until the other areas have evacuated. And to be real candid though, one of the things in Ike that was a mistake. Galveston Island did not evacuate as soon as it should have. In fact, a lot of people stayed on Galveston Island that shouldn't have stayed. It made the evacuation smoother but it also put those people in harm's way." 

Hurricane Rita And with the chaotic Rita evacuation still fresh in many people's minds, the National Hurricane Center in Miami estimates about 40,000 people remained in high-risk areas when Ike came ashore. 

"I saw how bad a storm can be and that was definitely a bad storm although not the worst possible."

That's Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. He wasn't in office when Ike hit, but he saw the aftermath as an Air Force reservist working with the recovery effort. 

One of Henry's big concerns was how people returned after the storm. 

"I saw a very ineffective look and leave program implemented on Galveston Island which I would call nothing short of disastrous."

The problem was that people were looking but not leaving. Henry says that one's policy he hopes to change when the next storm rolls in.

"If they can come back on the island, they can come back on the island. If it is unsafe due to hazardous water, no sewer, or no electricity, that needs to be kept off limits. But if you're allowing them back on, they're going to stay on. And they're going to do a better job protecting their property than the city's going to provide."

Back at TxDOT, Raquelle Lewis says one thing that improved mobility before and after Ike was the addition of about 100 new traffic cameras on local freeways. 

"We can see if there's a current situation that is causing a bottleneck that if we can actually get that cleared, we can eliminate whatever is causing a stall in the movement of traffic."  

And Lewis agrees with local officials on the issue of contraflow. That's when all lanes are opened in an outbound direction prior to a storm. They say that's something you don't want to do unless its a worst-case scenario.

Under the current storm plan, Harris County will give Galveston County 24 hours to evacuate before Houston-area residents are ordered to leave.

Bio photo of Gail Delaughter

Gail Delaughter

Transportation Reporter

Gail Delaughter joined KUHF in October 2008 as Saturday morning news anchor and host. A native of New Orleans and a graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University, Gail has extensive experience in Texas and Louisiana as a radio news reporter and morning show anchor and co-host...