Hurricane Series: Is Galveston Ready?

Galveston
Even if you're not a hurricane expert, it's easy to figure out that Galveston Island and other parts of Galveston County will probably be directly in the line of fire if a hurricane comes our way this season. In 2005, officials found out the hard way just how difficult it was to evacuate several hundred thousand residents in a matter of days. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports in our week-long hurricane series, emergency plans have improved.

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On a clear, breezy day here along the seawall in Galveston, it's hard to imagine anything but gentle waves and an endless horizon. But Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas knows better. She was here during Rita two years ago.

"It will come. The Gulf of Mexico will produce a storm. The question is, how big?"

Thomas was the face of this city's emergency efforts during Rita and says she and others have been able to refine Galveston's plan because of the reprieve during last year's hurricane season.

"We kept our plans in place. We had our meetings. We had our town hall meetings regarding hurricanes. We stayed right on track."

Thomas says leading a city in such a vulnerable location isn't for the faint of heart.

"The seawall is 10 miles long on a 32 mile island. It's 17 feet high. When we have a 150 mile an hour wind and a 28 foot tide, the island can be washed away. So I worry about public safety and I worry very much about getting people out of town early."

In 2005, getting some of those people out wasn't easy. Because it had been so long since a hurricane threatened the island, plans to evacuate residents with medical conditions or people who simply didn't have rides was a challenge. Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough says those plans have changed.

"I mean, we literally put them on a un-air-conditioned bus and said go somewhere in inland Texas and they'll be a shelter for you and do the best you can. Now we have designated spots where we're going to. Galveston County and the city of Galveston are sending all our people to Austin."

That agreement with Austin includes transportation, food and shelter for special needs evacuees with nowhere else to go. It's a part of a larger emergency plan in Galveston County that now includes the Rita experience.

"A lot of hard work had gone into our planning. We're so much further along today than we were even two or three years, much less seven, eight, nine, ten years ago."

"This is our EOC. This is really kind of the brains of the operation. This is our command center and you can see all the radios and telephones in here."

Inside what amounts to a fortress capable of withstanding a category five hurricane, Galveston County Emergency Management Coordinator John Simsen shows off the Emergency Operations Center in League City. If needed this year, the county will evacuate based on zip codes.

"What's important to Galveston County about that is not so much which Galveston County zones leave first. What's really critical is the other end of that, making sure that the people in the other areas get the message that if they don't live in one of these zip codes, the probably don't have to evacuate."

Simsen says that message was lost during Rita, when thousands of residents farther inland clogged roads before Galveston County residents could get out.

Tomorrow at this time in part three of our series, how a hurricane affects oil and gas production.

"You're hearing steam and generators going on and when that goes away and you don't hear trucks going up and down the streets, you know it's not business as usual."

For a complete list of hurricane resources, check our website, KUHF.org.

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Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...