HOUSTON – The next time a monster hurricane threatens Texas, the governor should be in charge of ordering evacuations to ensure that those in most danger have a better chance to get out first, a task force said Monday.
About 60 people died during September's evacuation as Hurricane Rita churned in the Gulf of Mexico, including 23 residents of a Houston-area assisted-living facility whose bus exploded near Dallas.
Some people died from heat exhaustion and heart attacks after dozens of hours in their cars without water or air conditioning, while others were killed in traffic accidents.
Centralized control over evacuations would be an improvement over the system allowing local officials to order them, the task force found. "The process could have been smoother," Gov. Rick Perry said while announcing the findings of the task force, which held a series of hearings around the state. "This report will improve planning and coordination, which will result in more effective hurricane response when lives hang in the balance and every second counts."
Local leaders along Texas' 367-mile coast complained that their residents — the most vulnerable to the storm — couldn't make it inland because larger cities such as Houston called for evacuations before coastal residents were able to leave.
"Gridlocked highways and lengthy travel times caused an unknown number of evacuees — perhaps thousands — to turn around and return to their homes," the report stated. "If Rita had made a direct hit on the Houston area as projections once predicted, the consequences could have been catastrophic for those evacuees who turned back."
Even a well-developed and orderly plan can't circumvent gridlock if people don't listen, the governor stressed.
"There is a reason they call it chaotic when there is a hurricane or any other major disaster like that," Perry said. "And there are always going to be those who don't necessarily follow our instructions."
An estimated 3 million people fled Rita when only 1.3 million actually needed to leave, state officials have said.
The task force, which gathered data and testimony in six cities, made 21 recommendations to Perry in five areas: command, control and communication; evacuation of people with special needs; fuel availability; flow of traffic; and public awareness.
The task force recommended development of traffic flow plans for major evacuation routes and placement of gas, comfort and medical aid stations. Some evacuees complained they couldn't get medical help or leave freeways to find it during the evacuation.
The group also called for a statewide database of people with special needs; the requirement that all nursing homes and health care facilities have an evacuation plan; and a requirement for school districts to make buses and buildings available to evacuees.
Public awareness campaigns also should be launched informing Texans of the importance of keeping vehicles properly fueled during hurricane season and plans put in place to care for pets during emergencies, the group said.
"Texans should never face the choice of either evacuating to safety or remaining with their pet in a hurricane's path," the group said.
Perry said he'll take some recommendations to the Legislature. He said the plan should help save lives and better prepare the state for hurricanes, which always will be a threat on the coast.
"We need to have this coordinated and one place people can look to," Perry said. "If we would have got it 100 percent right the first time, we wouldn't be meeting today. But we didn't."
The task force, appointed by Perry, was made up of 14 members, including experts in the medical, transportation and communications fields.