“Happy” Anniversary: Five Years From Hurricane Rita

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Busy week:  Matthew is brewing in the western Caribbean, yesterday was the first full day of fall and today is the fifth anniversary of hurricane Rita’s landfall in southeast Texas.  Rita was important for all the obvious reasons but what stands out for many of us who experienced it is The Exodus.  That’s the nickname, not used lightly or with a hint of sacrilege, for the massive evacuation ahead of the storm.

Rita started to make landfall on a Friday night – an odd habit of hurricanes in this region, but we’ll talk about that some other time – and in the days prior, a large number of factors resulted in what I’ve heard empirically described as “the largest evacuation in human history” in terms of the largest number of people to move as many miles in such a short time.  Estimates hover around the 3 million mark for how many actually decided to bug out.  At the time, our office was located near Hobby Airport, 11 miles southeast of my neighborhood near downtown Houston.  My usual commute home from that location was around 20 minutes; that Wednesday evening prior to arrival of the storm, it took almost two hours.

The official death toll attributed to Rita is 120, but the vast majority of the 113 deaths indirectly attributed to the storm occurred during and because of the evacuation.  Car wrecks, overheated cars, cars running out of gas, not enough food or water available . . . and then the devastating fire that gutted a bus full of evacuated nursing home residents.  The loss was staggering.

There are as many anecdotes and tragic tales as there are people when you talk about the panicked response to that storm but two factors contributed significantly to the build-up.  For one thing, Houston, despite the fact that it’s the fourth-largest city in the country, has the highest percentage of renters (as opposed to owners) in all of the top 20 metropolitan areas.  Translation: for more than half the people who live here, their most expensive possession is not their house but instead their car . . . or cars.

However, probably the biggest reason so many chose to hit the road and suffer the misery that ensued?  Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans just a few weeks earlier.  The images were still just too fresh.

Thankfully, the response to the threat of Ike, which frankly dealt a blow dozens of times more serious to the Houston-Galveston metroplex than Rita did, was much more educated.  Rita reminded us that we need to think harder about who should actually evacuate before a hurricane and, just as importantly, when.  Heed the advice (made famous by County Judge Ed Emmett) to hunker down.  If you don’t live in an evacuation zone, don’t leave.  Worried about losing electricity, especially a/c?  Fine.  Go visit friends way inland a day or two after the storm has passed.

I-45 northbound just north of Houston, 21 September 2005. Photo: Shimoda28107

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