As the 10th anniversary of hurricanes Katrina (Aug. 29) and Rita (Sept. 23) approaches, memories of the storms vividly remain for Texans. Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and Rita forced the largest evacuation in Texas history, with more than 3 million people leaving the Houston-Galveston area. There are lessons to be learned from both, says a Texas A&M University severe storms expert.
R. Saravanan, professor of atmospheric sciences who specializes in studying climate variability, says the storms were historic not only for their intensity, but also as part of the most active hurricane season ever. In 2005, a record 27 named storms occurred, and 15 of them became hurricanes, 7 of which became major hurricanes. Of those 7, an unprecedented 4 reached Category 5 status.
Katrina was the costliest hurricane ever and one of the 5 most deadly storms ever to hit the U.S.
Its high winds and storm surge engulfed New Orleans completely, so much so that 53 breeches occurred in the city’s levee system, resulting in 80 percent of the city becoming flooded. It damaged more than 800,000 housing units, causing $81 billion of damage in 2005 dollars, and killed more than 1,500 people in Louisiana and at least 230 in Mississippi.
“The lessons learned from the Katrina disaster were immediately visible during the response to Rita a month later,” Saravanan explains.
“People took the evacuation warnings seriously. However, hurricane activity has been relatively weak since then, with very few hurricanes making landfall. People may be a bit more complacent now, but I think Katrina is still fairly fresh in their memories.
“Both Katrina and Rita also exposed some of the flawed assumptions in risk management and insurance coverage that hopefully have been fixed to some extent.”
Although Houston dodged much of the power of Rita, the storm caused millions to flee their homes. The storm killed at least 120 people, some of them as a result of evacuation efforts, such as 23 people who died in a bus accident near Dallas.
Gasoline shortages, inadequate evacuation routes, immense traffic jams, gridlocked roads, power failures and other miseries caused many persons who fled the storm to say they would never evacuate again.
“There were problems with evacuation procedures,” Saravanan adds.
“It shows that we still need to educate the public about the nature of hurricane forecasts that can lead to evacuations. When looking at it from a risk management prospective, it (evacuating) is still worth it.”
Texas has managed to dodge other storms in the 10 years since Katrina and Rita, but it is only a matter of time before another major hurricane hits the Texas coast, Saravanan says.
“The hazards of building homes too close to the water have become very evident,” he notes.
“We have learned a lot from both storms. At the national level, Katrina and Rita led to major research initiatives to improve hurricane forecasts. Computer models have slowly but steadily been improving, and we have developed a better ‘cone of uncertainty’ about hurricane trajectories.
“Hopefully, these and other improvements have led to more precise storm warning and evacuation directives.”