Saturday, September 24, 2005

Familiar Rita Debris

24 Die in Bus Fire , Dallas Morning News
"We'll just have to keep on disastrously having
disasters until we finally get it right."

The eye of Hurricane Rita made landfall early this morning just east of Sabine Pass and Port Arthur, very close to the Texas-Louisiana line. So, the worst of the storm missed Houston.

Even before the storm has passed, however, a familiar kind of debris is beginning to be exposed. The New York Times describes one example.

We've seen it before, right here in Penaacola. It was 1995, Hurricane Opal. Six hours to travel five miles. Gridlock on I-10. Frantic radio readers warning people caught in their vehicles to take cover. Frightened people abandoning their vehicles in the middle of the road to run in a panic across the landscape.

As then, this week in Houston local emergency planners worried that no one would listen when they urged an evacuation. As then, this week in Houston nearly twice as many as expected -- in Houston's case, 2.5 million people -- hit the highways, producing "scenes of gridlock, chaos and mass frustration... [and] "deathtrap" highways.

Another recognizable result of the storm: Past negligence is exposed. In 1995, it was all the sub-par electrical and plumbing connections that somehow had escaped the notice of local building inspectors until Opal exposed them. In Houston, we're learning already --
The owner of the charter bus that exploded while ferrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita has a history of financial and safety woes, The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday.
This one is familiar, too: even before the storm has passed, Houston blogger Off The Kuff was joining the debate "over whether or not the dangers of Hurricane Rita were overhyped (by the media and/or local politicians), and if that contributed to the extreme freeway gridlock yesterday."

Sound familiar, Opal surivors?

Here's an easy prediction: after a few months of back-and-forth over alternative evacuation plans, media bashing, political recriminations, etc., Houston officials will decide that next time only coastal residents and those in low lying areas should be evacuated; those on higher ground will be urged to hunker down and ride out the next hurricane.

That will be the new plan. But the "next time" it will be a different kind of hurricane. Maybe even a different kind of disaster. Maybe it will be a hurricane Ivan, whose high winds left Pensacola a "city of blue roofs." (It still is, even a year later.) Maybe an earthquake or a tsunami. Maybe a terrorist attack.

As with wars, we always seem to be preparing to fight the last disaster. Too often, too, even if planners struggle to think about the next one, as Easily Distracted argues "we not only waste money on empty scenarios and bogus futurology, but we fail to spend money in concentrated fashion on concrete preparations for those scenarios whose future occurance is not just hypothetical but practically inevitable."

It seems we'll just have to keep on disastrously having disasters until we finally get it right. Meanwhile, check in on other Houston area bloggers for perspectives from the inside of Rita's pathway.

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