With the start of hurricane season less than a month away, officials in Texas are carrying out a four-day drill to test systems and coordination of emergency response teams. The idea is to avoid some of the mistakes made last year.
Police, fire fighters, city, county and state officials were at their posts Wednesday as a category four hurricane bore down on the Texas gulf coast, threatening lives and property over an area of several thousand square kilometers. Fortunately, the hurricane was not real and the emergency response teams were working with data sent to them from state officials in the Texas capital of Austin that simulated a real event.
Over the rest of this week, they will continue to work on their skills and identify problem areas that need to be addressed before a real hurricane arrives.
Last September, state and local officials were shocked by the flaws in the system that left thousands of people from southeast Texas stranded on crowded roadways as Hurricane Rita approached. Many people ran out of gasoline and had to abandon their vehicles. Some who stayed put suffered through power outages and a lack of food and water, even though Rita ended up making landfall close to the Texas/Louisiana border and spared the people stuck on the highways north and west of Houston.
The man handling emergency response for Harris County, where Houston is located, is Judge Robert Eckels. He says state and local coordination will be better this year and that there will be rapid implementation of counterflow lanes, whereby all traffic on all highway lanes is directed out of the urban area. Officials are also trying to provide gasoline, water and food along evacuation routes. Still, he says, government can only do so much and citizens need to make their own preparations.
"I cannot tell you that there is going to be a store full of food ready to go when the hurricane comes," said Robert Eckels. "That re-emphasizes the importance of our community education campaign and something the media can help us with. Everyone today should go out and get their kit to be prepared, three-days worth of food, a gallon of water per person per day, everyone should get their hurricane kit today."
Texas Governor Rick Perry is also urging people in vulnerable areas along the coast to develop an escape plan now so that they will be ready when a storm approaches. He is also asking that people who have no transportation or are too old, ill or disabled to move themselves to call a special telephone number and register with state officials so that there will be a record of who they are and where they are.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Louisiana, officials are working on similar evacuation plans. In New Orleans, a city still a long way from recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the basic plan announced by Mayor Ray Nagin is to completely evacuate the city the moment a hurricane larger than category two approaches, which would mean a storm with winds higher than 177 kilometers per hour.
Mayor Nagin says there will be no shelters set up in the city and that the downtown convention center will be a staging area for people to be loaded onto buses leaving the city. After Katrina struck on August 29 last year, thousands of people flocked to the convention center and the New Orleans Superdome sports stadium seeking shelter. Both venues became scenes of misery as the displaced people waited in stultifying heat for several days to be rescued.