Houston-Galveston Hurricane Preparation
(Is the region ready for the big one?


It was a chaotic scene. Hundreds of thousands of cars, most of them packed with people, pets and belongings, heading north and northwest. Any direction would do for the more than two million people trying to get away from the Gulf of Mexico and what was forecast to be a category 4 hurricane.

It was September 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and the gulf coast areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Because Katrina had hit a few hundred miles to the east and the Houston area was feeling the full fallout from the mass influx of hurricane victims, nerves were raw and attention unusually heightened to the potential landfall of a major hurricane in the Houston Galveston area.

Rita was a near miss, its forecast track sliding east as it approached landfall, eventually hitting as a category 3 near the Texas-Louisiana border. Bill Read, the Meteorologist in Charge of the Houston-Galveston office of the National Weather Service says even with modern technology, the prediction of a hurricane's path is not exact. " For a storm moving 10 mph forward speed, aimed right at Galveston, a deviation in direction of movement of only 10 degrees results in 100 miles east or west of Galveston. Rather subtle changes in the surrounding atmosphere that we cannot even measure, much less forecast, can lead to these minor directional changes in track. Rita was nudged slightly by just such a feature which led to an 80 mile deviation to the right about 36 hours before landfall."

Even with a near miss, its damage was sobering for Houston. Even as the top sustained winds in Houston only reached 39 miles an hour. There were seven Texas deaths as a direct result of the storm and an estimated 100 deaths in the Houston area as a result of pre storm evacuation efforts, the result of exposure and accidents.

The Insurance Council of Texas reported insurance claims resulting from Rita totaled just under six billion dollars. A similar direct hit on the Houston-Galveston area would be devastating.

Hurricane Alicia on August 18th 1983 was the last hurricane to "hit" Houston. Considered a small to medium sized storm, the National Hurricane Center reported that only a 60 mile section of Galveston coast experienced hurricane force winds. Still, the damage caused by Alicia was over two billion dollars. In 1983 Houston had a population of One Million 775 thousand with 200 thousand residents in Galveston. Since then the Houston region has more than tripled in size to more than five and a half million people, the 6th largest metropolitan region in the United States.

As the June 1st start of Hurricane season approaches, the chances of Houston taking a direct hit from a hurricane are as good as they have ever been. Recently retired Director of the National Hurricane Center Max Mayfield, interviewed for this report said "There is absolutely no reason why Galveston/Houston can't get hit by another major hurricane. It has happened in the past and it WILL happen again."

The question is when it does happen, will the region be ready? Will forecasters be ready to predict with any degree of accuracy where a storm will strike? Will the emergency management system be ready to respond to the frantic needs of more than five million people? Will the homes be ready to withstand the first direct tropical assault in more than 23 years?

There were definite lessons learned from Rita. The massive traffic jams created as millions tried to flee to safety led to a state wide task force.

It suggested, among other improvements, appointing one well informed official at the state level as the best way to coordinate the evacuation of the many cities in several counties in an anticipated storm strike zone. Five areas were outlined by the task force as priorities relating to the safe evacuation of people escaping the hurricane zone.

Those areas of focus:

(1) Evacuation of people with special needs. This recommendation is the direct result of the deaths of 23 nursing home residents who were being bussed from a Bellaire assisted living center when their bus exploded near Dallas.

(2) Fuel availability along evacuation routes. Because of the tremendous traffic jams many trips that would have normally taken an hour, took as long as 12 hours. Many who started to evacuate gave up and returned to their homes to ride out the storm.

(3)Gridlock elimination. Prior to Rita, there was no plan in place for contraflow traffic patterns that would turn all lanes of selected highways into outbound lanes during evacuation periods.

(4)Command and control. It is absolutely critical for there to be one voice of authority over jurisdictions within the evacuation area so that communities can safely move out of harms way.

(5) Public Awareness. This is probably the most critical part of the plan, to make sure the public is informed, not only during a crisis but well before a crisis when preparation is the key to survival.

Former Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield: "I, along with the previous directors of the National Hurricane Center, have been giving a very consistent message. We want every individual, every family, every business, and every community to have a hurricane plan that can be implemented during the next hurricane threat. The battle against the hurricane is won outside the hurricane season. Don't wait for the government to solve your problems. Take that personal initiative and develop your own plan to keep yourself and your family safe. This plan must be developed with all of the hazards of the hurricane in mind: the storm surge, strong winds, heavy rains, and tornadoes."

A poll taken shortly after the Hurricane Rita evacuation indicated that if another hurricane of category 4 intensity is forecast to hit the Houston-Galveston region, more than 60% of the residents would leave, even with the thought of having to sit in traffic for ten hours or more in order to reach safety.

For those who stay, the homes they use for shelter will be critical, but just how safe those homes will be is a question mark. The building codes along the Galveston coast are significantly stronger than those enforced farther inland. But there is good reason to strengthen the codes inland as a way to alleviate some of the evacuation stress. Max Mayfield has suggested that the stronger the code and the homes farther inland, the fewer miles evacuees will have to travel to reach safety. His point is that if the first tier of inland counties have well built homes to withstand hurricanes, the people evacuating from the coastline will only have to drive tens of miles to find safe refuge rather than hundreds of miles. There is no statewide building code for the state of Texas as it relates to hurricane related readiness. Hurricane professionals continue to advocate for such a uniform policy that will lead to the saving of lives.

The challenge of forecasting where such dangerous storms will hit continues to be an inexact science but one with improving techniques. Bill Read, the meteorologist in charge of the Houston-Galveston National Weather Service office, says as long as the gulf coast waters are warm, the regions' climate will continue to be hospitable for hurricanes and that the main challenge for forecasters is to give residents enough time to prepare and evacuate.

Read also says that much of the improvement in forecasting the track of hurricanes is due to the more sophisticated numerical models and the development of ensemble and consensus model forecasts. With better satellite and reconnaissance data and increased computer power there is a much better recipe for successfully tracking hurricanes. Even with such advances, the experts say one of the particular difficulties is being able to predict the rapid increase or decrease of a storm's intensity.

When the big one hits, it is clear preparation on all levels will be the key to survival. With hurricane supplies in place, homes must be reinforced. Realistic estimates indicate that if a category 4 storm hits the Houston-Galveston area, 100 mile per hour winds will stretch 50 miles inland. The center of the city of Houston is 50 miles from the coast encompassing many homes which do not have and are not required to have hurricane clips for the second floors or shutters. The Texas legislature enacted stronger building codes for structures built in the 14 counties on the Texas Gulf Coast after January of 1998, but building to the code is not mandatory.

My experience living through and after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 tells me that until "The Big One" hits, there is no pressure to enforce and enact stronger mandatory building codes in Texas. Experts say the damage estimate for a category 4 storm hitting Houston-Galveston is 30-60 billion dollars.

Perhaps Mother Nature will do what common sense cannot, to change those priorities.


National Hurricane Center
The Houston Area League of Women Voters & Texas Best Online

Historic Houston

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. ","

Houston Business Journal, March 22, 2007

Insurance Journal

Houston Chronicle/

Max Mayfield, former Director, National Hurricane Center

Bill Read, Meteorologist in Charge, Houston-Galveston Office, National Weather Service