The last major hurricane made a direct hit on Galveston Island and the Metropolitan Houston area on August 18, 1983. I remember it because I was living in Galveston at the time, working at the University of Texas Medical Branch and living in an apartment two blocks from the Seawall and the Gulf of Mexico. On weekends, I commuted to Houston, where my then-wife was going to graduate school. I still know folks down there. I hope they’re safe. The images of destruction coming out of Southeast Texas today are breaking my heart.
In 1983, during Hurricane Alicia, I evacuated to Houston and spent a long night hunkered down with my wife and a neighbor friend who was bedridden with a bad back. The storm wound up taking 22 lives, causing $2 billion in damage (in 1983 dollars), and leaving me with a profound respect for the havoc our planet can bring.
Alicia was bad. Today, a bullet was dodged when the worst of Ike’s storm surge went east of Galveston and obliterated the sparsely populated Bolivar Peninsula (a sand spit that’s basically at sea level and spent last night on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico). But Ike is still far, far worse than Alicia. Early estimates are that the storm will cost insurers $18 billion. Some 4.5 million people have no electricity; many will remain without power for weeks. Lots of folks also have limited water. And especially in Galveston, though it didn’t get hit with the 20-foot wall of water forecasters feared, rescuers are surely going to find bodies. Perhaps lots of them.
I mention all this because one of the most notable aspects of this storm is the large number of people who refused to evacuate – even though the National Weather Service issued an unusually dire warning yesterday that those in the storm surge zones who live in one- or two-story buildings faced “certain death.” Over a third of the people living in those zones – some 100,000 fools – stayed behind anyway.
In 2005, just after the devastation of Katrina, nearly 100% of folks evacuated for Hurricane Rita. The evacuation turned into a gridlocked fiasco, and more people died from it than from the storm (which then veered east and mostly missed the area). Listening to Houston radio last night, caller after caller cited the Rita experience, and distrust of government, as the reason they chose to stay behind. Hopefully, with the diminished storm surge, it wasn’t a fatal decision.
Which brings us to Seattle. We don’t get hurricanes, but we are more than vulnerable to a major earthquake or the lesser chances of, say, a terrorist bioattack or Mount Rainier erupting. Evacuation from Seattle, with only three major roads out of the area (I-90 and I-5 north and south), any of which could be badly damaged in a big quake, is a serious issue. So is the probability that without the sobering local experience of a Katrina in mind to encourage compliance, a lot of people wouldn’t leave. Plus, in a real-time event, you have folks who’d first want to get their kids from school or loved ones from work, folks who’d refuse to go without their pets, and the usual subset of people who fear looters more than a government warning of “certain death.”
What is Seattle’s disaster evacuation plan? Does anyone (outside a few planners at FEMA and City Hall and the King County Courthouse) even know? Would folks leave? What would you do?
As grim images emerge from my old home town of Galveston this weekend, now is a good time to consider what Seattle would, and should, do in a similar event.