clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Too many ignored orders to evacuate

WASHINGTON — Watching the endless video loop of the radar images that tracked Katrina as it blew from the Gulf of Mexico into the coast east of New Orleans was mesmerizing. When broadcast meteorologists zoomed in for fine-grained, virtually neighborhood-by-neighborhood Doppler coverage, there was almost a sense that a conjurer was at work.

But, no, it was the artful, admittedly entertaining as well as informative, application of modern science. For some in the path of Katrina, it was a portrait of approaching doom that they ignored at their extreme peril.

Barely a century ago, in the Galveston hurricane-flood of 1900, the nation suffered its deadliest natural disaster in large part because of the government's poor predictive and forecasting skills. More than 8,000 people died, including the wife of the chief of the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau.

For anyone living south of Interstate 10, a copy of "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson (Random House, 1999) should be as close to hand as a powerful flashlight or wind-up radio.

We've learned a lot. But when it came to Katrina, too many people chose to ignore a good bit as well.

Sadly, the biggest lesson, as often is the case with these storms, seems to be rooted in human cussedness and stupidity.

Take this sentence from an Associated Press report:

"Late Monday, Harrison County (Miss.) emergency operations center spokesman Jim Pollard said about 50 people had died in the county, with some 30 of the dead at a beach-side apartment complex in Biloxi."

What, can be asked reasonably, were 30 people doing at a gulf-front apartment building in Biloxi — a red-brick complex inaptly named Quiet Water Beach?

The AP quoted one 55-year-old woman who admitted that she and her boyfriend stayed despite a mandatory evacuation order and then had to paddle out a window as they swam to safety.

This is all too eerie for anyone who remembers Hurricane Camille, which thrashed its way across Mississippi's Gulf Coast 35 years ago, killing about 250 people from its landfall on the Gulf until the storm returned to the Atlantic through Virginia.

"It happens every time," said Phil Hearn, a publicist at Mississippi State University who wrote about the 1969 devastation in "Hurricane Camille: Master Storm of the Gulf Coast" (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

"Every generation has to learn," Hearn said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Starkville as he was worried about a house he owns farther south that was damaged by Katrina.

Although tales of a deadly hurricane party during Camille at an apartment house in Pass Christian have been debunked, it is clear that at least eight people who should have gone to higher ground died in the complex because they — for whatever reason — did not leave.

This time, a little to the east, in Moss Point, Miss., a woman, whose house was flooding and who had to be rescued told the AP that she didn't leave earlier because she had never seen the water that high. She has now.

"Just a certain percentage of people are not going," Hearn said. "There are the old who think they've already seen the worst or the new who have no concept."

What does that tell us: When the authorities say leave, go.

Do they make mistakes? Yes. But at least you'll be alive to carp about it.

The procedure for mandating evacuation varies by state.

In Texas, during a recent review of emergency preparedness, local officials expressed concern about who had the power to require evacuations.

"They didn't think they had the authority to do it," said Kathy Walt, Gov. Rick Perry's spokeswoman.

So, in 2005, the Legislature sought to make it clear that local officials, such as mayors and county judges, can require folks to clear out. But no penalties or fines for refusing were included, Walt said. (It's Texas, after all. Property rights and homestead and mobile home as castle — all the usual reasons.)

If local officials disagreed, Walt said, Perry could weigh in.

In general, she said, Texas has a lot of experience, runs yearly exercises and kept close watch on Katrina, lest it turn westward.

Could Galveston be struck again, is a favorite question. The answer is yes and no. Almost certainly it couldn't happen with as little warning as in 1900. But given the right hurricane, a certain track, a particular wall-eye whipping the bay into a less defended northwest side of downtown, you never know.

Suffice to say, Hearn, reflecting on Katrina, said of Galveston: "I wouldn't want to be there in a storm like this."

You have been warned (and warned and warned).

Cragg Hines is a Houston Chronicle columnist based in Washington, D.C. E-mail him at