It Happened in Houston

In his press conference on Friday, Texas governor Rick Perry congratulated his staff for doing a great job in preparing for Rita. It must be a Texas thing, since I remember Bush congratulating Michael Brown. A few days later he fired him. Despite the hype by city, state and federal officials, the reality on the ground in Houston tells a different story. It is a saga of incompetence and an almost complete lack of planning.

Like many people, we tried to flee Rita's path. Thinking we could beat the traffic, we left Houston at 8pm on Wednesday -- 48 hours before Rita's expected landfall. We chose a road with normally light traffic. By 11:30 p.m., we had driven about 20 miles -- another 180 lay ahead of us. At that pace, we would have arrived in San Antonio in 24 hours, if our gas held out. Already exhausted and watching the gas needle drop, we made a U-turn and headed back home, passing an almost uninterrupted line of gridlocked traffic extending back to the city. By Wednesday night there was no viable way out of Houston.

When we returned to Houston, the gas stations were closed and every pump was bagged and empty. Stopping at a large 24-hour Kroger supermarket, most canned foods were gone, and only a couple of boxes of water remained. Not a single flashlight or C or D battery was available. The market had posted a sign "Closing Thursday at 1pm. Reopen ???" The manager said they might reopen Monday, but he wasn't sure. By Thursday afternoon, all of Houston's supermarkets had closed, if they weren't already shut down.

Those with the money to stock up on groceries did well. Others who did not have the money may face several days of hunger. One shopper on the line with a small basket of groceries said she could not afford to buy more. Her paycheck had run out.

For some of us in Houston, it was like New Orleans all over again. City, state, and federal authorities again demonstrated their incompetence in the face of a crisis. Despite the "we're in control" -- another Texas thing -- the evacuation was chaotic until late Thursday, even though a mandatory evacuation order for large parts of the city and surrounding counties were in effect a day earlier.

There were no roadside services available on Wednesday, despite the impossibility of driving -- or idling -- a vehicle for 24 hours on one tank of gas. Emergency gas for stranded motorists was not made available until late Thursday, more than 24 hours after the exodus began. The counter-lanes were also opened on Thursday, again more than 24 hours after the evacuation order. By then, most people who had turned back -- and there many -- were too weary and wary to try again. By Thursday morning, almost every gas station in Houston was out of gas, reinforcing the fact that there was no way out.

The absence of statewide coordination was obvious early on. For instance, when driving through small towns toward San Antonio, all of the traffic lights were operating. It was like a regular evening for the small town of Richmond, Texas, except for hundreds of thousands of cars trying to snake through a narrow main street lined with stoplights on almost every corner. There were no sheriffs or state troopers to keep the traffic moving.

The much-touted presence of the "new and improved" FEMA was absent. Low-income people were not provided with sufficient food before the hurricane hit. Nor was water being distributed. There were no notices on billboards or signposts announcing shelters or food depots. Helping people after a hurricane is far less effective than helping them prepare for it. Apparently, FEMA prefers the heroics of "saving people" to the more banal aspects of preparing them. Seeing the lack of preparedness of America's fourth largest city was sobering.

We can only hope that the aftermath of Rita will be handled better than the preparation for it. But, as President Bush is fond of saying, "The jury's still out."

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