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Thursday, September 22, 2005. Houston is fast becoming a ghost town. With the evidence of Katrina’s pain and misery unloaded on the people who stayed in New Orleans, many Houstonians didn’t have to be prodded very hard to evacuate. Of course, the rush to get out of town led to huge lines at gas stations, empty store shelves, and chaos on the major northbound routes. There are over four million people living in the greater Houston area, easily nine times the number of people in the greater New Orleans area. Given the comparison in available roads, notice before the storm hits, and the wind force of the relative storms, Houston is going to have just as hard a time getting everyone out as New Orleans did. And, like New Orleans, there will be many who are unable or unwilling to leave, like my own family. We do not have the finances necessary to take shelter in a North Texas hotel, we do not trust the police or neighborhood to prevent our apartment from being burglarized if we leave town for any length of time, and in any case, the long drive North before the storm, and the return later to deal with the consequences would only add to the stress and fatigue before we got down to the task of cleaning up and repair. So we have stored up provisions, prepared escape plans for worst-case conditions, and readied ourselves for both what we expect to see happen, and for possibilities of every magnitude. My employer took the precaution of closing early for the weekend, so we will have all of Thursday and Friday to get ready for Rita’s landfall. Our apartment is not in a flood plain, the one car we have remaining is a relatively high-clearance SUV, we have several cases of water, a fair amount of dry and canned food, a decent first-aid kit, candles, and a small butane stove. The apartment building itself is a heavy brick building, ugly but sturdy, and we live on the second floor. As long as the power stays on, I will blog updates on the Hurricane. At the moment, Rita is a full-Category 5 Hurricane, the 3rd-strongest storm ever tracked, headed on a course directly for the Galveston Bay and Houston. We expect to start seeing storm effects Friday morning, with landfall expected around 1 AM Saturday morning.
The most likely scenarios for Rita all include heavy rain and high winds; the only question is really how much flooding, how high the wind gusts will be in major metropolitan areas, and how far inland Rita will be able to do catastrophic damage. Galveston, both the city and the county, will be in for a really hard hit, just like Lake Jackson and the rest of the Texas Gulf coast. Buses and other means have been used to move thousands of people already, and the rescue crews and shelters are all in place and have several plans and contingency options ready for whatever comes.
What I’m saying is that there are really three zones of Hurricane impact; the Gulf Coast cities, the Houston metropolitan area, and inland Texas. The areas of greatest danger have had mandatory evacuations begin already, including Seabrook, Galveston, Clear Lake, Dickinson, LaPorte, Corpus Christi, Nassau Bay, Hitchcock, Victoria, Wharton, Pasadena, Baytown, and all the way down the coastline. The Houston metropolitan area is actually three sub-areas - downtown with high-rise buildings and a lot of glass, low-lying areas to the South, and a lot of land which is going to get hit with high winds and flooding to some extent, but which is sixty miles from the coast, so there will be effectively nothing like the storm surge which hit New Orleans. The main concern is the fact that Houston is a very decentralized city, so that people who are trapped in flooded areas or by wind destruction will be difficult to reach. City officials warn that 911 services will seriously degraded during the time the Hurricane is passing through Houston, and the sheer size of the storm (more than 600 miles across at this writing, with sustained 170 mph winds) means that it’s fifteen mph pace of approach will take around twenty hours or so to make its way through the city, so there will be literally a full day of high winds and heavy rainfall. According to KHOU-TV, around a million and a half Houstonians have or are evacuating through this morning, generally from the areas with flood history. TXDOT has begun to reverse inbound lanes on major highways and toll roads to outbound traffic only, to improve the flow of traffic out of town. Additional deliveries of gasoline to stations is planned for today, to provide fuel for the evacuees. Medical evacuations began late Tuesday evening, so that the most critical cases were out of town before Mayor White announced the voluntary evacuation stage.
Houston is also seeing traffic from the South, as coastal areas evacuate through Houston to reach inland destinations. This is another reason for the congestion, as well as the heavy gasoline consumption. Many evacuees from Galveston and the coast were nearly out of gas when they got to Houston, creating intense demand for the limited supplies by both Houstonians and through traffic. In addition, owners and employees of many stations are themselves evacuating, further reducing the supply. At the moment, the supply of gasoline has definitely been the biggest problem so far. Most of us would be happy if that were the only big problem from this storm.