As time passes since Hurricane Ike pummeled Galveston County in 2008, emergency response officials worry longtime residents are becoming complacent and an influx of newcomers may not be prepared for the upcoming storm season.
Emergency management coordinators across the county are banding together for a renewed push to educate — or re-educate — people about important preparedness steps. Officials said that’s meant setting up booths at countywide events such as the Galveston County Fair and Rodeo and targeting the businesses that serve new residents such as apartment complexes.
“We became real aware in the last couple years how many new people are coming to this region every day,” said Charlie Kelly, emergency management coordinator for the city of Galveston. “Some people have talked about how cool it’d be to have a hurricane party. It’s not fun. It really isn’t.”
He reminded that Hurricane Ike knocked out sewer and water services for two weeks in some areas.
Experts have predicted fewer hurricanes in the 2015 season from June through November, but it only takes one to cause destruction in the county, Kelly said.
While it already has been in place, officials continue to urge residents to sign up for the county’s emergency mass-notification system.
The system allows residents to sign up 10 devices to receive alerts not only about hurricanes, but also other disasters such as oil spills.
Messages can be received via phone calls, emails or texts.
Galveston County Emergency Management Coordinator Garret Foskit said residents should sign up inland friends or family who they may be hosting during an evacuation. He said this allows those without cellphones or computer access to know when it’s time to return home.
Still, there are many who don’t sign up for the free service, Foskit said.
“I think people just don’t think about it until it’s too late, like with anything else,” Foskit said. “We don’t want anybody to be killed because they didn’t know they should have left. That’s our big thing.”
Sign up for notifications from the county and individual cities at www.gcoem.org.
Evacuating before the storm
Emergency notifications for evacuations, even voluntary ones, should be taken seriously.
Otherwise, hitting the road too late could mean hours and hours stranded on the interstate as Houstonians evacuate. Mention Hurricane Rita and stories abound of 20-hour journeys to Austin, the county’s partner city during evacuations.
Although evacuation for Hurricane Ike was improved, officials said an agreement with Houston and Harris County officials requires earlier evacuations. This allows Galveston County residents to leave before neighbors to the north start clogging roadways.
Because of this, county officials must make evacuation decisions four days before a hurricane is projected to make landfall.
That gives buses provided by the state a chance to arrive and transport those who need assistance at least three days before the storm hits. A mandatory evacuation is typically called two days before landfall, giving Houston-area residents 24 hours to leave before the hurricane.
The earlier timeline can sometimes cause residents to feel a false sense of security, Kelly said.
“I know that sounds earlier,” Kelly said. “Usually, the sun’s out and beaches are full.”
He suggested filling up gas tanks well in advance of hurricanes to avoid lines or closed stations.
If residents wait too long to pack up and leave, the county could be looking at another Hurricane Rita situation with severe traffic snarls, Foskit said.
He said residents who rely on oxygen, require dialysis or other life-support machines should leave, even if they live farther north because electricity could be lost.
“When the county says to leave, it means leave,” Foskit said.
However, if a hurricane forms over the Gulf of Mexico, rather than off the coast of Africa, it can reach land in less than 24 hours. That could force officials to ditch plans to request buses from the state or local school districts and instead “hunker” down, Kelly said.
The idea is that many could be stuck on roads when the storm surge of water hits land. Fortunately, Kelly said, quickly forming storms often push less water, which means less flooding.
Preparing for disaster days
For those who choose to ride out a hurricane, Foskit said officials usually suggest gathering enough supplies for three days without power or running water but preparing for at least a week is best. That means buying fuel to cook or boil water, extra medicine, extra food and hygiene health products.
“If you can’t prepare for 10 days, then you should probably evacuate,” Foskit said.
Foskit said hundreds of people required rescue by helicopter following Hurricane Ike. The county and officials and other agencies have been training on techniques to spot distressed survivors from the air. He suggested those in need to hang blankets and sheets out windows to attract attention.
Ideally, those people would evacuate before the storm because rescue missions have been risky, Foskit said.
“The problem was we had to use helicopters to rescue people. Period,” Foskit said. “We’d prefer people to evacuate beforehand.”
One problem during Hurricane Ike was that its wind speed put it at a Category 2, but the surge of water was a Category 5, Kelly said.
The lesser forecast was deceiving because the storm surge, often the cause of the most damage and death, was much greater.
Now, the National Weather Service has been using new technology to predict the storm surge. The organization will issue separate warnings for cyclone winds and storm surge to better forecast the kind of threats barreling toward the county.
But while forecasting technology has changed, county officials are sticking with many of the same hurricane procedures changed after Hurricane Ike — which have yet to be tested.
“Lessons learned from Ike, we’ve put them in place, but we haven’t had a chance to deal with them,” Kelly said. “We’re sure they’re better than what we had for Ike, but every time you have an event, you find something that needs to be tweaked or better.”