Today is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Rita’s landfall on the upper coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s a question for you: What was the cause of the largest human evacuation in history? The surprising answer is 2005’s Hurricane Rita. Hurricane Rita? The one-time Category 5 storm that made landfall on the border of Texas and Louisiana? The #10 costliest tropical storm on record? The one that, unless you live (lived) nearby, you might not even remember? Yes, Hurricane Rita.
With maximum sustained winds of 180 miles per hour and remarkable gusts to 235 mph, Hurricane Rita out-powered Hurricane Ike (145mph max), Hurricane Katrina (175mph max) and even Hurricane Andrew (175 mph max). Yet it remains an also-ran among great storms. At landfall, with max winds of 120 mph, Rita struck the lightly populated area of Sabine Pass, near Port Arthur, Beaumont and Lake Charles. How is it that Hurricanes Ike, Katrina and Andrew, striking the dense population centers of Houston, New Orleans and Homestead/Miami (respectively), infamous storms one and all, did not somehow manage to out-evacuate Hurricane Rita? Turns out, it was the perfect storm for evacuations.
Consider the collective Gulf Coast state of mind prior to the Rita landfall. Not quite one month prior, on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans. In the days following, New Orleans flooded and society, as we know it, fell apart. Scenes unfolding on the evening news and on computer screens worldwide showed death, rampant crime, devastation and perhaps worst of all, loss of hope. And then comes Rita, even following a similar storm track to Katrina.
Between Katrina and Rita a lot happened — five storms, actually. Remember, 2005 was (and remains) the most active Atlantic tropical season in history. Lee, Maria and Nate were fish storms. Ophelia brushed the coasts of North Carolina, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland but otherwise remained off the coast, and then Phillipe was another fish storm. A lot of action, but nothing to dislodge the images of Katrina just 29 days earlier.
So there was Katrina, but there was another complicating factor: the forecast. Originally, the long-range landfall was the mid-Texas coast. With time, the forecast readjusted the landfall farther and farther north — eventually targeting Galveston and Houston. Though actual landfall was well east of Galveston, county and city managers did what they had to do when they had to do it: mandatory evacuations of Galveston and suggested evacuations of Houston began on September 21.
And let’s not ignore that the last hurricane to strike Houston/Galveston with force was Hurricane Alicia in 1983, with a then-population of 1.7 million. By 2005, the Houston Metro population had swelled to nearly 5 million — there were a lot of new Houstonians who had never experienced a hurricane.
The evening prior to the Galveston and Houston evacuation bulletins, Rita’s winds were clocked at 180mph with those ridiculously strong gusts. Would you stay? New Orleans was in ruins and a storm with gusts closer to 250mph than 200mph was taking aim. What seemed like every resident of the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria metro area decided there was only one logical choice: get the heck out. And thus began the greatest U.S. evacuation of all time.
Considering the populations of the aforementioned Houston region, plus Beaumont/Port Arthur and Lake Charles, some estimates place the total evacuation at over 4,000,000 (four million). Dr. Richard Knabb’s (current Director, National Hurricane Center) report on Hurricane Rita, estimates between 2.5 and 3.7 million left the Texas coast. When asked to comment today, Dr. Robert Stein of Rice University, co-author of the study The Human Side of Evacuation, A Hurricane Rita Study stated, “Half of the residential population of the area attempted to go somewhere else and left their homes. A single percentage failed and returned instead. It’s hard to say whether it was more people than evacuated for Katrina over a 7- to 10-day period but it was definitely over a shorter period of time for Rita when it was just over three days.”
There are true horror stories from the Rita evacuation. A post storm study attributes 90 deaths to the evacuation. The Houston Chronicle estimated 107 evacuation deaths. Additionally, temperatures were well above normal (nearing 100F) and many additional deaths were blamed on the heat. One of the most horrific evacuation scenes happened south of Dallas as 23 nursing home residents died when their evacuation bus burst into flames while fleeing Rita. Worst of all, there was no reason for the elderly and infirmed residents of that near-Downtown Houston nursing home to evacuate — they should’ve sheltered in place.
Neighbors, friends and co-workers of mine told stories of evacuating and driving 24 miles in 24 hours. ImpactWeather’s Fred Rogers noted that on Tuesday, three days prior to landfall, his typical 20-minute commute home took two hours. Motorists with the coast in their rear-view mirror ran out of gas — becoming stranded on the highway — while having made no real progress in their attempt to evacuate. Unable to move for hours at a time, those evacuating had to use the side of the road for a bathroom break. Food supplies ran out and water bottles ran dry. Previous evacuation procedures were simply overwhelmed by the massive evacuation. Coastal residents, in desperate need to escape, were nearly locked in place due to the shear number of evacuating Houstonians.
Every tragedy brings later improvements in systems, procedures and equipment. And the tragedy that was the Rita evacuation is no different. Improvements lie primarily with future evacuations. Rita brought about a near total rewrite of the way residents evacuate. One of the more noticeable changes is the addition of contraflow lanes. Though these lanes were part of previous evacuation procedures, they had never been implemented, and when they were they were opened for Rita they were opened late and inefficiently. Most motorists hadn’t heard of contraflow and didn’t know what to do. Other improvements have been made for those evacuating, including services such as gas, cash and food along evacuation routes. Improvements to shelters and evacuation centers have been made. Communication amongst officials was much less than expected during Rita, despite the infamous communications failures of 9/11 almost exactly four years prior. Following Rita, communications procedures and equipment have been totally overhauled. Hospital, nursing home and prison evacuations have refined their evacuation processes — including new procedures on how to deal with hazardous materials such as oxygen tanks.
Perhaps most importantly, a successful implementation of a new evacuation mindset has been put in place for the general population of Southeast Texas. No longer does everyone feel the need to evacuate. With slogans like “Run from the surge, hide from the wind,” residents no longer feel that their only course of action is fleeing the storm. Hurricane preparedness and education programs are now regularly attended events by residents and businesses each spring and summer (ask me how: dgorham at impactweather.com). People are aware of flood and surge zones. Key to the success of a future evacuation: residents have a good idea of who should run from the surge and who should hide from the wind. The continuing battle will be overcoming complacency — the downfall of any emergency plan.
The name Rita has been retired from the list of names used for Atlantic tropical storms.