Few mind evacuating even though predictions fall short

Sunday, September 25, 2005

CONROE, Texas -- In far-flung Texas shelters, where evacuees huddled as Hurricane Rita spared many of their homes, scarcely a gripe was heard. Nobody accused anyone of crying wolf.

Searing images of the helpless New Orleans poor trapped on rooftops, watching their own city die in the winds and waters of Katrina, had sent a clear message to people here as another hurricane roared toward land:

Get out while you can.

And so they did, by the millions, clogging the freeways of southeast Texas in what may have been a sign that city dwellers will never again assume their homes, or their lives, are safe from approaching disaster.

Araceli Ovilla, 29, waited until Friday, hours before landfall, before she put her husband and four children in a car and set off for Dallas, fearing the bayou near their Houston home might overrun.

They did not make it there, not even close. They landed about 30 miles away in a cramped shelter with about 300 other people in a Catholic church in this northern Houston suburb of about 36,000.

But Ovilla was quick to say authorities made the right decision in ordering the evacuation -- she saw what became of New Orleanians who did not flee Katrina.

"I think if you ask everyone what the words 'New Orleans' means to them, they will say panic, horror, fright," she said in Spanish.

It was a common theme in shelters throughout the state, even after it became clear that Rita -- while hitting a slice of the Louisiana coast hard -- had punished Houston with little more than a menacing, windy rain.

James Wade, 46, fled to Tyler from the coastal town of Port Arthur, which was in Rita's path after the storm swerved north. But he was in no mood to complain.

"Couldn't be better," Wade said of his shelter, at a Baptist church recreation center. "I've been wanting to talk to the pastor of this place and tell him everybody has such a good attitude, good ethics. Everything has been great."

The evacuation of Houston and the Texas coast that began three days before landfall was, for the most part, a success: Nearly everyone got to safety, and in time.

Where it faltered, it was because too many people tried to get out too quickly, some evacuating before the staggered times set for their designated zones. Gas was scarce, and buses picked up some people who abandoned their cars.

So much of the past week here -- the warnings from public officials, the extra attention from the federal government, but especially the bumper-to-bumper freeway exodus -- bore the lessons of New Orleans.

"There's a lot of people that got spooked by Katrina," said Michael Lindell, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.

He noted that Katrina appears to have provided a bigger motivation for the public to evacuate than for the authorities to call for an evacuation in the first place.

"Not only were there more people evacuating, but I think they were evacuating earlier and they evacuated before the authorities were really prepared for them," he said.

To be sure, there were those who grumbled -- particularly people who fled the Houston area and moved east, only to find that Rita seemed to follow them in that direction.

"I think we wasted our time for coming because I think we're going to get it harder here than there," said Lupe Vargas, 17, who was riding out the storm Saturday in Nacogdoches, close to the Louisiana line.

And yet even people who saw the worst of the Texas evacuation's glitches seemed forgiving.

Moises Soni, who came to Conroe from the island town of Galveston, ticked off a list of the disturbing things he saw on the trip: hysterical people, burned-out cars, children stricken by the heat.

Still, he pronounced himself lucky.

"It was a good decision" to leave, he said. "If what happened in New Orleans because of Katrina hadn't happened, many people in Texas would have stayed. New Orleans served as a lesson to leave early."

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