Galveston officials can easily recall the lead-up to Hurricane Rita, when a frenzy to evacuate the area left locals trapped among thousands in a barely moving line on Interstate 45.
Hurricane Ike, three years later, packed a different punch. Traffic wasn’t as much of an issue, but Galveston’s infrastructure was battered when the storm surge wreaked havoc on the island.
The city of Galveston has learned a bit from those two weather events, which were the most recent and significant in the city’s history. If another storm rolls through, traffic and infrastructure shouldn’t be a nearly as big of a problem, city officials said.
“We’re in a much better position to recover from a hurricane,” City Manager Brian Maxwell said. “The city has hardened all of its infrastructure. We feel we have good resources on the island to get people back sooner.”
The city has taken significant steps to improve building infrastructure and water and sewer systems, but Galveston residents should still be prepared for storm surge, Maxwell said.
“One thing Ike taught us for sure is that we are vulnerable to flooding,” he said. “It can be severe. We need to heed all those warnings carefully.”
Houston-area entities also have tried solving the evacuation problem. Area entities operate on a map that staggers when counties get the go-ahead to leave, so everyone isn’t on the road all at once. Areas closest to the coast usually get to leave first, Galveston Emergency Management Coordinator Niki Bender said.
“Everyone remembers Rita when everyone left at the same time,” she said. “That resulted in us doing some planning on a regional level.”
Galveston residents can only get off the island using Interstate 45. Once they’re inland, they can continue on the interstate, use state Highway 6 or take state Highway 146.
Sections of the evacuation routes also can operate using “contraflow” during hurricanes. In contraflow, traffic moving away form the danger zone can use both sides of the highway.
Although the city has tried to mitigate any problems that could occur with traffic and infrastructure, the crux of preparation falls on the residents.
Bender recommended that Galvestonians keep an eye on local news and social media, and make sure to always keep water around, as well as a full tank of gas. Those who can’t evacuate on their own can make preparations with the city to get out safely, Bender said.
People should make an evacuation and hurricane preparation plan before hurricane season begins, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
“It’s just easier to get through whatever traumatic experience you’re dealing with if you have a plan,” he said. “Do it now, and when the time comes, just move into action.”
One problem people might run into is the uncertainty of what each storm can bring, Maxwell said. In Hurricane Ike, for example, many people prepared for high winds, when flooding ended up being the main concern, he said.
“Every storm is different, that’s why you have to prepare like it’s going to be the worst of both.”
Although Galveston is fortunate it hasn’t experienced a hurricane since 2008, that consequently means that many people have forgotten the dangers that can come with a storm, Yarbrough said.
“The biggest concern is complacency,” Yarbrough said. “It’s been eight years since Hurricane Ike. Human nature takes over and people get complacent.”
One of the most important things to remember is that driving away from the coast is much better than staying in an imminent danger zone, Bender said. Turning around shouldn’t be an option, she said.
“Get inland,” Bender said. “Maybe you don’t get to the destination you were planning on, but as long as you get away from the coast for the duration of the storm, that’s better than being on the coast. We’re definitely more at risk here.”