Friday, September 23


Though today work had me busy as a one-armed paper hanger, like everyone else in Dallas I stole every moment I could to check on Hurricane Rita. Driving in this morning the radio was full of reports of the horrific bus explosion just south of Dallas that took the lives of at least two dozen elderly and/or sick citizens. The bus was a charter hired to evacuate 45 people from a Bel Air nursing home. Apparently sparks from faulty brakes ignited a fire in the bus, then the flames caused oxygen canisters used by the passengers to explode. Passers-by called in, and the sheriff's department sent deputies who were able to assist some of the passengers off the bus and to safety before flames engulfed the bus, making further rescues impossible.

Reports have abounded over the past couple of days of thousands of cars (and the families occupying them) stranded, out of gas, on the side of the road, after a dozen to eighteen hours to move 10-40 miles on the traffic-stalled road to Dallas (ordinarily a five-hour drive). Gas was almost impossible to find, and the stations that still had some available were gridlocked with blocks-long waiting lines. An eighteen-year-old girl died of dehydration. For a stretch of about 36 hours Governor Rick Perry kept promising that tanker trucks were going to show up to refuel the stranded cars. No-one seemed to ever see them. Traffic was so incredibly congested that early this morning Houston mayor Bill White was telling anyone who hadn't already hit the roads that they'd be better off weathering the storm at home.

The media, especially conservative media, has been full of favorable comparisons of the great and able Texas preparation for this hurricane to Louisiana's "inept" and "lacking" performance re Hurricane Katrina. What I've observed is that Republican Perry DID learn some lessons from Katrina, but still made mistakes of his own. Yes, Perry saw to it that stores of food and water were prepositioned, as were National Guard troops. If Houston, like New Orleans, sees thousands of residents unable to leave under their own volition and stranded for days without provisions, Perry will seem wise indeed. But Perry called for an evacuation of the nation's fourth-largest city, the largest evacuation in national history, and yet didn't anticipate that the egresses from Houston were not sufficient to allow four million people to escape without extraordinary measures such as shutting southbound freeway traffic out of Houston to allow all lanes to be used as evacuation routes (ordered only this morning, two days after the evacuation began) and that failure of imagination caused a delay in providing gasoline tankers and water distribution trucks for evacuees caught in a traffic gridlock that resulted in tremendous hardships for those heeding Perry's instructions. Texas cities already straining under the demands of their generosity towards Katrina victims were unprepared to absorb the hordes exiting Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, and other threatened areas. I see no indication that Perry had located or communicated to evacuees safe havens as destinations.

The real lessons of both Katrina and Rita are that every city has its own peculiar challenges in preparing for a disaster. FEMA is responsible for aiding every American city in developing a crisis plan that will take into account its own unique environment, potential hazards and available resources. Judging by what we've seen in the past month, the agency has failed miserably in that charge.


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