Storm School 101 (a.k.a. Katrina meets New Orleans) taught us lots of lessons. Perhaps the most important lesson was that all levels of government -- local, state, and federal -- must act decisively and as early as possible. As tropical storm Rita dashed through the Florida Keys on Monday, Texas authorities focused on the projected threat. The so-called "cone" of landfall included all of the 600 miles of coastal Texas. The meteorologists' models projected this baby could reach a Category 5 level, the highest grade on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, by the time it reached landfall. The thought of a Cat 5 with 170 mph winds and a 20- to 30-foot storm surge hitting the projected target of Galveston and Houston was enough to make one cry. I did.
I knew that the entire island of Galveston would be submerged, as it was in 1900 when a similar hurricane hit. Over 8,000 unwary souls were lost that day. The economic cost of such a hit today would dwarf even the loss from Katrina, given the 10 oil refineries -- representing 13 percent of the nation's refining capacity -- in the immediate Houston area. Swing just 30 miles to the east and a Cat 5 would wipe out Baytown, home to the nation's largest refinery, Exxon Mobil's facility, which processes 557,000 barrels a day. More importantly, Baytown is where my widowed, elderly mother lives. Her house is within walking distance of Burnet Bay, the northern part of Galveston Bay. The animated computer models on local television showed her neighborhood completely inundated by a 20-foot surge...all gone: just washed away, as my aunt's bayside house had been by a previous hurricane, Carla. Predicted landfall was late Friday, early Saturday.
By Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Rick Perry declared the state of Texas a disaster area while Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas declared a state of emergency and ordered a mandatory evacuation plan designed to see people leaving the county in stages, starting with special needs residents, and scheduled to start at 6 a.m. on Wednesday.
That same morning, at 9:30 a.m., Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels issued a request for voluntary evacuation of the city of Houston -- fourth largest in the U.S. -- and a plan for mandatory evacuation of those living in flood-prone areas, storm surge areas, and mobile homes.
The result was total gridlock on the designated escape routes North 45, 290 and I-10 West. The mass exodus of nearly 2 million people in over a million and a half vehicles turned into a nightmare. The gas grew short as tempers flared and overheated vehicles died on the crowded highway shoulders. A normal-time drive to Dallas of four hours turned into a 30-hour Odyssey. A two-hour trip to San Antonio became a 15-hour forage, complete with all the anxiety, pain, discomfort, and even deaths that arise from dehydration, lack of medications, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, and heart attacks.
As Rita raced across the Gulf of Mexico, picking up energy from the unusually warm waters, she reached a Cat 5 level by Thursday. The highways were still packed. Mayor White had moved his command staff to the HECC (Headquarters Emergency Command Center) near North Sheppard and Tidwell, while County Judge Robert Eckels set up his command post in the Transtar facility. Each command post was designed to withstand the ravages of mother nature's worst. They were staffed by members of each of the key departments: engineering, legal, police, fire, emergency medical, and liaisons to other state and federal agencies, to mention just a few. One of my close friends, who wishes to remain anonymous, was in the HECC from 6:30 a.m. Friday until noon Saturday during the time that Rita made landfall. By Friday, Rita had veered to the east, delivering her worst punch to Port Arthur and Beaumont, sparing Houston. During this time frame, Mayor White -- seemingly never sleeping -- was "a supreme allied commander. He performed in the most spectacular fashion. He was as calm, cool, and decisive in handling crisis management," just as he was in leading the WEDGE Group to record performance as President and CEO from 1997 until his election as mayor in November 2003. A Democrat, Bill White had previously served as Deputy Secretary of Energy of the United States, and has served on the Executive Committee of the Greater Houston Partnership, and on the boards of numerous public and non-profit organizations.
Held in the highest esteem by his staff and the citizens of Houston, Bill White garnered the accolade of a "problem solving machine" as he synthesized data from the field, and quickly offered up solutions. The traffic gridlock, in part due to haggling between two Texas DOT (Dept of Transportation) districts, eased just as Mayor White was, allegedly, about to send out Houston Police to enforce a countraflow up North 45 all the way to Dallas. Even the majority of people caught up in the "run-away scrape" of the evacuation do not hold the Mayor responsible. Enoc Guerra spent 28 hours in a hot car crammed with his family and few possessions. " It wasn't the Mayor's fault," Enoc said in retrospect. "Besides, I'd rather be safe and alive. If that storm had come our way, I don't think I'd be here to talk with you. We live in Channelview on the waterfront."
It's Monday after the storm now. After making sure my mother was safe in San Antonio, I rode out the storm in Houston. As we cleaned up our yards, my next-door neighbor, Jim Thompson, a civil engineer and hydrologist, and President of TCB, a leading consulting firm to the Houston Disaster Recovery Plan, casually remarked that Bill White is out leading the way to recovery: "He's a remarkable leader, an incredible problem-solver. Bill White is the man of the hour. He's a problem-solving machine." That was the second person to use that accolade.
Houston is very fortunate to have Bill White at the helm. Thank you, Mr. Mayor, for a job well done. Perhaps we need a problem-solving machine in the White House?