Monday, September 26, 2005

Disaster Planning


When I announced my intention to remain in Houston during Hurricane Rita, it immediately provoked a fair amount of debate. Now that the crisis is largely past, I think it would be useful to re-examine the decision.

There is an old saying; no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. And it’s not far from that to say that the real world is not kind to plans we make for emergencies. That’s part of why I am writing this article, actually - it is far easier to make a general plan and demand someone else follow it faithfully, than to make all the adjustments needed under the pressure of real time and significant consequences.

It’s always a good idea to have plans for emergencies; fire escape plans, tornado and flood response, intruder alarm and escape, and so on. But it’s just as important to have Plans B, C, and D, for what happens if something shoots the first plan to pieces. And hurricanes are a good example of a situation not agreeing to follow the plan.

Like Katrina, Rita formed up rather quickly for a storm of its size and strength. It changed course a number of times, even in the last day before landfall, making it difficult to know the conditions to expect. Some will (correctly) observe that this fact makes it important to prepare for the worst, but it also means that we have to divide our plans into things we expect to control, and things we cannot control.

Like many people who live on the Gulf Coast (though not nearly so many as I would like), I made plans to address hurricane and severe storm conditions. The things I can control in such conditions basically come down to laying in supplies, like canned food and bottled water, confirming the stability of the residence and street conditions, and planning evacuation routes for various situations. These were all in place.

A number of factors affected the decision I had to make last Wednesday. They included the following:

1. The coastal and low-lying areas were ordered to evacuate, and people living in known flood-prone areas were asked to consider evacuation. People who did not live in flood plains, as is my case, were told to exercise “common sense”. The area where I live has never flooded on record.

2. We had two cars, and had plans which allowed flexibility depending on which car (or both) we took. When my car was stolen on the night of the 13th, that reduced options severely.

2a. With only one car, we no longer had the ability to keep one car fully fueled at all times, and because of the necessary method for getting parents to and from work, and the daughter to and from school, the CRV was only half-full Wednesday evening when we had to choose our actions.

3. Because Mikki and I both had to work through Wednesday, by the time we were all back home, the major roads were crowded, the gas stations were jammed with long lines and already starting to run dry, and this reduced feasible options.

4. I knew Houston traffic from long congestion, and correctly anticipated that we would run out of gas before could reach a safe destination, and might be unable to find fuel to make the journey.

5. I have relatives in other countries, but not in Central or North Texas. As a result, evacuation would mean trying to find a hotel in another county on no notice, which would be relatively expensive and difficult.

6. Our residence does not sit in a flood plain, nor do any of the major roads which lead from it out of town.

7. The building in which I live is a thick brick structure, with surrounding brick structures. It has never been flooded, nor has it suffered significant damage from wind. Since we are 60 miles inland, and our apartment is on the second floor, we are in danger from neither the storm surge nor flooding, unless something truly unprecedented happens, but must prepare for wind under a known number of limited possibilities.

Our choices then, were reduced to trying to find fuel, risking what we already, had, and then to make a long trip to an unknown destination. Otherwise, we could choose to reinforce our residence, make use of prepared supplies, and ride out the storm. The measure was unknown risk against known risk, unknown cost and difficulty against a reasonable estimate of cost and difficulty, and the uncontrollable behavior of other drivers and non-local conditions, against controlled conditions. From that perspective, the choice to remain at home was clearly the best option, in terms of protecting family and preventing harm. The severity of the storm is actually a greater factor of danger if we evacuated, than if we stayed.

Obviously, had we been on the coast, if we lived in something like a trailer or a wood-frame house, if our neighborhood was known for periodic flooding, then bugging out would be required, but in our condition, we were as secure or more in our home as we would be in any location we could reach for more than a hundred miles. While wind was a threat to consider, it was not the only factor, and the decision I made was the one which best protected my family. In other conditions, situations, or with different options, my choices would have been different. But I made my decision without emotional imbalance, without forgetting priorities and known history.

Just something to think about when looking at a hard decision someone else has to make. Know your options, what you can control and what is byond your control, and make your decision without panic.

1 comment:

kalisekj said...

Cool Blog, I never really thought about it that way.

I have a Hurricane Katrina blog. It pretty much covers hurricane related stuff.

Thank you - and keep up the thoughts!