Getting ready for Rita with Katrina in mind

Federal, local officials hope to avoid mistakes

Hurricane Rita

September 23, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien and Bradley Olson | Dennis O'Brien and Bradley Olson,Sun reporters

HOUSTON -- State and local officials tailored preparations for Hurricane Rita to avoid the mistakes their counterparts made when Katrina devastated New Orleans and nearby Mississippi almost a month ago.

Yesterday, they told a million people along a broad stretch of Texas' Gulf Coast to get out of town before the hurricane arrives - and, unlike officials in New Orleans, provided buses for many of those who had no cars.

They brought in extra police and National Guard troops, this time with what they hope is enough communications equipment to do the job.

Many hospitals closed down and transferred their patients to facilities on higher ground - hoping to avoid the suffering and deaths that occurred among patients stuck in New Orleans' flooded hospitals.

If anything, the efforts might have been too successful. Thousands of residents got stuck in traffic jams of unprecedented proportions in near 100-degree heat, unable to get gas for their cars.

Some complained that Houston had gone too far by calling for such sweeping evacuations.

"Houston is so much bigger than New Orleans. What I'm wondering is, where are all these people going to go?" said Jim Vogt, an engineer from Houston.

But Mayor Bill White made no apologies. While he doesn't want panic, he said, he wants to avoid complacency and to empty the neighborhoods most threatened by the storm roaring across the Gulf of Mexico toward his low-lying city.

"The lessons from Katrina are don't wait - and don't be afraid to give the evacuation order," said Frank Michel, the city's communications director.

"We would rather err on the side of having too many people on the road than not enough people on the road. And I think we have done a conscientious job of taking a look at some of the people with special needs."

Government officials here are haunted by images of death and destruction in New Orleans, where thousands of mostly poor, mostly black residents suffered for days in flooded neighborhoods and fetid public shelters while federal, state and local government forces appeared helpless. Texas officials have sworn there will be no repeat.

Evacuation orders for low-lying neighborhoods and advisories for those in less danger were broadcast as soon as the storm began to advance. About 1 million of the area's 4.5 million residents have been ordered to leave their homes.

Officials also have been quick to detail efforts to remove elderly and homeless people from risky areas. Buses have been sent to evacuate those without cars. TV stations are broadcasting telephone numbers for those needing a bus, while Houston established a "311" hot line for residents who need help getting out.

Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez, adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, said the state was preparing to deploy 5,000 troops.

Rodriguez said state forces have beefed up their communications capability - another lesson from Katrina. In New Orleans, the National Guard had left most of its modern equipment in Iraq - and had to make do with Vietnam-era radios at home.

State and local police in other flooded areas of Louisiana and Mississippi were also handicapped by outmoded equipment.

In Texas, the troops will deploy to evacuated regions as soon as possible after the storm passes, establish order and coordinate relief efforts between military and civilian authorities, their commander said.

"The key word is communication," Rodriguez said. "With both the federal communication and state communication assets that are being put in place, a lot of that back-and-forth talk will be a lot better this time."

At least 25 area hospitals chose to evacuate ahead of time, mindful of the suffering and deaths of patients trapped in some of New Orleans' best-known medical institutions.

Triad Hospitals Inc., based in Plano, Texas, said it's emptying facilities in Victoria and Wharton, Texas, and in Lake Charles, La.

"Based on our experience with Hurricane Katrina last month, we are taking extraordinary precautions to prepare for Hurricane Rita," Chief Executive Officer James D. Shelton said in a statement.

But 900-bed Methodist Hospital in Houston, which beefed up its weather defenses after a 2001 hurricane, hunkered down. It boarded up patients' windows, rolled down metal curtains over the lobbies and sealed off basement hatches against flooding.

"We are going to ride this out," spokesman Denny Angelle said yesterday.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said at a briefing that the state had evacuated more than 9,000 people by air from Houston and Beaumont. Wednesday night, troops deployed to facilities for the handicapped all along the coast.

"This evacuation is historic in its proportion," Perry said. "We will evacuate these Texans who can't evacuate themselves."

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