BEAUMONT, Texas — In a soggy crescent of land where wrecked homes outnumber upright power lines, Gulf Coast officials did a body count from Hurricane Rita and issued this number: two.
At one point Rita was a Category 5 hurricane, took up more than half the Gulf of Mexico, and was expected to be measured in body bags. Instead, the highest number of fatalities came when an evacuation bus caught fire. What could have been a killer storm killed few.
“It’s just amazing and wonderful,” said state Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, moments after Gov. Rick Perry helicoptered away from a news conference.
Something went right this time.
Twenty-three elderly people died when their evacuation bus caught fire 48 hours before the storm made landfall, a person was killed in north-central Mississippi when a tornado spawned by the hurricane overturned a mobile home and an East Texas man died after being struck by a fallen tree. But the vast storm didn’t have the fatal power expected.
This town reported its first serious injury when a man trying to evade roadblocks erected to keep residents from returning fell from a highway overpass and hurt his legs.
Traffic was a greater danger to the citizens of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast.
Part of the answer, officials say, was planning and part of it lay in recent memory of New Orleans residents drowning, sweltering and then starving.
“No question about it. The citizens here saw what happened in New Orleans, saw all those people on the rooftops, and when the local government said it’s time to leave, people left,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Republican who represents the 2nd District, which encompasses Beaumont and much of the stricken area.
On Friday night, as Rita bore down on the coast, local officials held a news conference to discuss preparedness. Mayor Guy Goodson drew a contrast between his city and New Orleans, where photographs of more than 100 empty school buses, unused in the city’s evacuation and then stranded in the flood, became a symbol of local failure.
“In this area, every independent school district bus left full,” he said. “Every contract vessel has been used to get people evacuated out of our city.”
The empty school buses were avoided, in part, by a change in Texas law that predated Rita and Katrina by several years. Texas had no statute allowing for mandatory evacuations in its code until the state’s evacuation plan was updated several years ago.
State Sen. Kyle Janek, a Republican who represents the area, inserted that language, and police and local municipalities put it to work as soon as Rita began edging toward Texas. What they did not tell locals was that there were no penalties attached to the law. The few who defied the evacuation orders face no fines.
” ‘Mandatory,’ that gets their attention,” Janek said. “They think why have a law without a penalty? But there are pretty good reasons for that. Number one, it gives them cover if their employer wants them to stick around and work. They can say, legally I’m required to leave.”
The second part of the law’s heft came in pressure on local authorities, who are less likely to ignore a governor’s order.
“It allows city officials to go into nursing homes and say we have to evacuate these people, we have to get these people out, and you are going to help us to do that,” he said.
Thus, there were no repeats of the horror that took place at St. Rita’s nursing home in New Orleans, where dozens died, trapped by the rising floodwaters, when the owners decided to wait out the storm.
But one large aspect of the success here came in the early bird-dogging of state and federal officials. The key evacuations came in area nursing homes and the city’s two hospitals, where an estimated 1,200 elderly, frail, and ill were airlifted from the scene hours before the storm made landfall.
“If I hadn’t thought to get the senators involved, those people that were in the hospital today would probably be dead, some of them,” said Carl Griffith, the chief executive of Jefferson County. “They wouldn’t have electricity and water to survive.”
(Contact Dennis Roddy at droddy(at)post-gazette.com.)