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Houston and Texas Coast Reeling from Ike

POSTED: September 15, 2008, 12:00 am

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When it finally made landfall Hurricane Ike was not the Category 4 storm that had been feared but it still did enough damage to flatten Galveston and leave Houston in the dark and littered with debris. Ike was downgraded to a Category 2 storm but still caused major flooding and prompted a major air rescue effort. A 9 p.m. to 6 p.m. curfew has been imposed in Houston until Saturday and local police were patrolling city streets to avert any potential looting of businesses.

According to news reports from Houston, downtown buildings, including the 75 story J.P. Morgan Chase tower, the city’s tallest structure, suffered considerable damage. Streets were littered with broken glass, steel and office furniture that had been sucked out of the buildings by the powerful storm. On one side of the Chase tower it is being reported that almost all of the windows have been blown out. In much of the city power is out though some progress is reportedly being made to restore electricity to critical sites such as hospitals. Both of the city’s airports – Hobby and George H. Bush – were closed Sunday.

In Galveston the Texas National Guard was distributing supplies and the Coast Guard was making air rescues, checking on residents who had chosen to stay behind despite stern warnings by officials to evacuate. By midday Sunday authorities had surveyed the east side of Galveston for storm survivors but were turning their attention to the west side of the island city where there were fears of significant casualties. For Texans and the nation Galveston represents a historical marker having been the site of a deadly hurricane in 1900 that resulted in 6,000 deaths; the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history. During that famous storm the tide of water produced an 8-15 foot surge that covered the entire island.

An evacuation order had been issued for Texas coastal communities but a decision was made to call upon Houstonians to stay put and ride out the storm. The size of the Houston metropolitan area, almost 6 million people, made it impossible to evacuate the entire region. Officials feared a repeat of Hurricane Rita in 2005 when residents fleeing the city clogged highways heading out of town. The confusion and chaos resulted in 110 deaths, including 23 nursing home patients whose bus burst into flames while stuck in gridlock. The evacuation caused more deaths than the storm. This time officials hedged their bets, choosing to get residents most directly in the path of the storm to safer ground. Still, many Galveston residents opted to stay on the island; a decision those that survived may now regret.

Early Sunday morning President Bush met with advisers at the White House to be briefed on the latest developments in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. The day before Mr. Bush had declared 29 counties in Texas and parts of Louisiana disaster areas. On Sunday the President said, “Our priorities, along with the state and local folks, is to make sure electricity gets up as quickly as possible.” Mr. Bush also took note of the potential impact on gasoline production, warning that the federal government, along with state and local authorities, will be closely monitoring the gasoline sales to determine if there is any price gouging. To safeguard against a shortage of oil due to damage to refineries in the Gulf Coast, the administration agreed to move 200,000 barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to an Illinois refinery and 109,000 barrels to a refinery in neighboring Louisiana. President Bush plans to travel to the area on Tuesday to survey storm damage.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas Governor Rick Perry assessed the damage to his state. Governor Perry acknowledged, “It is difficult to see parts of our state in this condition, but it is the current reality and we’re working through a recovery operation that is massive in scale and complexity.” By daybreak the Texas Public Utility Commission estimated that there were 2.4 million customers without power. Also, 254 shelters had been open throughout the state and those sites were housing more than 37,000 evacuees. The Governor’s Division of Emergency Management reported that 2,000 storm victims had been rescued in the course of nearly 500 missions as of Sunday morning.

The federal government’s response to the rash of tropical storms that have occurred this month is in stark contrast to the debacle of Hurricane Katrina three years ago when residents of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves. Even the Crescent City appears to have better prepared itself for natural disasters as was evident from the mandatory evacuation order given in the wake of Hurricane Gustav. As some scientists suggest the intensity and frequency of these storms may increase, coastal communities will need to have emergency plans in place to confront various contingencies. The increase over the last century in the number of people who live in coastal areas and overall waterfront development makes disaster management that much challenging but it is the reality that states along the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard must now confront.

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