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“5 Lessons We Could Learn From Hurricane Ike”

September 15th, 2009 · No Comments

Mike Tolson from the Houston Chronicle offers an interesting list of “5 lessons we could learn from Hurricane Ike” on the storm’s first anniversary. As I think that Tolson’s lessons are useful for all communities, I’ve reprinted it below in its entirety:

Our success weathering the storm depended on how prepared we were and how much we were willing to come together. Here, five lessons to remember for next time:

Numbers often deceive
Galveston natives or longtime residents of the island are accustomed to storms and storm warnings. Coming two years after Hurricane Rita, the evacuation from which proved difficult and unnecessary, Ike brought skepticism. Those who figured the storm would lose its punch and come ashore as a middling and survivable Category 2 hurricane were proved right, sort of. The winds topped out at about 100 mph over land. But the size of the storm, with its broad wind field of hundreds of miles, pushed more water ashore than many expected – a storm surge of 15-20 feet that swamped the island and destroyed many homes on Bolivar Peninsula. That prompted an official change from the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale to S-S Wind Scale to emphasize that the velocity of the wind and the size of the surge may not be directly connected. Ike’s winds caused plenty of damage, but it was the surge that proved so devastating to coastal areas, in some cases up to 30 miles inland.

No power to the people
A direct hit from a hurricane will surely take down the power grid. The only question is for how long. In the case of Ike, the lengthy power outages afterward affected an estimated 2.6 million people and hindered the ability of municipalities to provide normal power and sewer service because of poor backup power sources at pump stations. The limited evacuation also meant a lot of people living for days or weeks without electricity. A Rice University study reported that more than 50 percent of those surveyed lost power for five days and a third for more than 10 days. Putting utilities underground might be smart – areas such as Clear Lake or the Galleria with underground lines were not without power for long – but the cost makes it a nonstarter for a large-scale retrofit, and if the lines do go down sometimes they can take longer to fix. Better to take matters into your own hands. If you want a working fridge and maybe a little AC, you need to invest in a standby power generator that runs on natural gas or propane and puts out 7 kw or more of power. They are expensive, from $2,000 up to $15,000 for the most powerful units, but a great amenity if you have the means. A gasoline-powered generator is cheap, portable and a big help, but the juice it puts out is not likely to run the average home. And you better stockpile lots of fuel.

Prepare, and then prepare some more
A few things are certain in the aftermath of a hurricane strike: Death, destruction, discomfort and inconvenience. The only variable is how much. Coping has a lot to do with preparation. Ike showed again that people rarely have enough nonperishable food, water, gasoline, batteries and devices that make life easier in the absence of electricity, including battery-powered lanterns and fans. It’s not as if people don’t have plenty of warning for a hurricane, but there is a general expectation of normality returning within a few days. That did not happen this time because of power problems. Municipalities prepared better for Ike than ever before – more targeted evacuation zones, planning for people with special needs, the arrangement of transportation and shelters, and cleanup crews that started work quickly after the storm passed. One disturbing point made by the Rice study is that those evacuating from mandatory zones still did not leave early enough, meaning the gridlock seen in advance of Hurricane Rita would have occurred again if more people from other areas had left. Given the headaches caused by lengthy power outages, that’s a possibility next time.

Better and smarter building makes sense
Hurricanes may not discriminate, but the damage they inflict on buildings is directly related to how those buildings were built, which usually means when they were built. Stronger homes withstand hurricane winds. According to a study done by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, modern homes and condominiums built to the International Residential Code and properly elevated fared well, even though they enjoyed no protection, such as it was, from the Seawall. The old homes on Galveston Island, both in the city and western beach communities, were slammed hard by the surge and the wind. And the vast majority of housing damage in the Galveston Bay rim communities was to homes built in the 1960s and 1970s, before current floodplain regulations requiring elevation of structures. One sensible notion is to push residential construction on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula – and the roads and water and sewer lines they require – well back from the beach, as has been proposed by Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. Developers don’t like the idea, of course, but the nation’s foremost expert on barrier islands says it is the least the state can do. He recommends going much farther back so that federal subsidies are not repeatedly used to rebuild in areas vulnerable to storms.

People will respond and complain
Asked for his strongest memory of the aftermath of Ike, Houston Mayor Bill White said he was impressed by how much work was accomplished in such a short time. It was inspiring to see the armadas of trucks from all over the country pour into Southeast Texas to help restore power lines and clear debris. The oft-criticized FEMA did a better job than it did after Hurricane Katrina and helped funnel more than $2.5 billion in assistance to individuals and governments, even though long-term housing continued to be a vexing issue. Not all help was organized by government. Neighbors helped neighbors clear debris and unclog storm sewers. One local blogger recalled how a group of young Mormon men from College Station helped clear trees from his yard, part of an effort by the church that provided more than 7,000 volunteers and more 50,000 hours of labor. Texas Baptist Men and Interfaith Ministries doled out meals by countless thousands. But as in all trying times, there were those who tried everyone’s patience. The operator of one convenience store, open without power, decided to close because of complaints from people not being able to use credit cards or who did not like his prices, even though he had not raised them. Some people complained that the free MREs they had been given did not taste good. Others did not like the fact that a barbecue restaurant operating on generator power only offered chopped beef sandwiches. People are people, for better or worse.

Thanks to the Twitter feed of the StormSmart Coasts Network where I first saw this.

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Tags: Hurricane Preparedness · Preparedness Lessons

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