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Texas Prepares for Rita

September 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Tharling, welcome. So with the news from the National Weather Service that the storm might be taking a more northerly path, does that put you more near the center of the bull’s-eye or perhaps move you away from the worst part of the storm?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: Actually, it moves us away from the worst part, with it going in east of us. That would be a welcome. But right now we’d never take anything for granted.

RAY SUAREZ: Is Port Lavaca secured in any way either natural or man-made from the effects of a Category 4 storm?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: A Category 4 would probably hit us pretty hard because we only have a barrier island in between us and the major Gulf. And the elevation here is about eighteen to twenty feet, depending on where you are in the city.

RAY SUAREZ: So what could you possibly be facing?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: Right now, if it comes in where they are talking about we will still probably receive hurricane force winds and we will be receiving water of about a maybe eight to twelve foot surge.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the people of Port Lavaca getting out as they have been ordered to do?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: We did a mandatory evacuation. And also this evening starting at dusk to dawn we will have a curfew and the people have done very well at getting out. Most all of our RV parks have emptied out. And most of our citizens who have special needs were taken out by bus this morning. And those with non-ambulatory positions were taken out yesterday by ambulance.

RAY SUAREZ: How many people did you have to worry about getting out of town?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: We had 132 that we had to get out of town for special needs. And we had probably eight busloads we sent out this morning.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a range of people who got out right away and those who you had to do convincing on?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: Some of them got out of here very quickly because we are struck by Claudette two years ago and it was just a Category 1. So it did not take a lot of persuading.

RAY SUAREZ: And is that going well or are the highways pretty choked heading away from the shoreline?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: Fortunately for us, they are moving along steadily. We haven’t had any major reports of problems.

RAY SUAREZ: Based on the best information you are getting now, when do you expect the storm to reach you?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: We are expecting about 10 o’clock tomorrow morning tropical force winds, and heavier winds somewhere around midnight Friday.

RAY SUAREZ: And so far have you had much help or needed much help from any other level of government, state, county, federal?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: We have… we’ve had great help from the state and the federal. Everything is already pre-positioned up in Fort Worth and Dallas area and San Antonio area. And they have been a part of this, meeting every day in telephone conference to make sure we have all we need and that we have the proper resources to get people out of here and to be prepared once it hits.

RAY SUAREZ: What form did that help take?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: They came through the state emergency management office of the governor, and they continually are in touch with us keeping us informed of the routes that are best for us to take, what the surge might do to us, and we had to get airlifts yesterday for some of the people that needed airlifting out to hospitals and they were very quick to provide that.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, Mayor, do you think the example of Hurricane Katrina just in the past weeks gave everybody a greater sense of urgency than they might have had otherwise?

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: I think that coupled with the fact that many living here in Port Lavaca weathered Hurricane Carla in 1961 which was a similar size storm and that just refreshed their memories and I don’t think it left any doubt in their minds that they had to move on out.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Tharling, thanks for being with us, good luck.

MAYOR ALLEN THARLING: You are quite welcome. We hope those that are in the path will do fairly well.

RAY SUAREZ: Now the situation in Houston. We’re joined live by phone by Rick Lyman of the New York Times.

Rick, television pictures from Houston show epic traffic jams, have they begun to ease at all?

RICK LYMAN: They certainly haven’t begun to ease very much on the highways closest to the city. I understand that when you get to the far outskirts where they are actually starting to utilize some of the incoming lanes for, you know, contra-flow, as they call it, on the way out, it’s starting to ease up a little bit. But the people within a few miles of downtown haven’t felt it yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the difficulties in getting out of Houston caused the leadership there to perhaps modify or begin to modify the instructions they had given people about evacuating?

RICK LYMAN: Well, I have been driving around the city visiting neighborhoods so I haven’t been following what the city officials have been saying. But from talking to some other reporters who have been following that a little bit more closely, I think that they are detecting kind of a change of tone, perhaps, not so much, you know, if possible get out of town to if you don’t have to leave, maybe you should just stay.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it easy to get gas if you decide it’s finally time to load up the van and get out of there, can you get gas?

RICK LYMAN: Very, very difficult. There were only two or three gas stations that I saw open. I spent three hours driving all over Houston today. One of them had 47 cars in line to get to one of the few pumps that was still operating. The other two were not quite that bad. You know, prices have inched up through the day. We talked to people who were sitting at a hamburger stand across the street from one gas station said that the price had gone up from $2.58 a gallon to $2.89 a gallon just in a few hours.

RAY SUAREZ: Just to review, were Houstonians given a blanket order to evacuate or was it just some sections of the city that were considered most vulnerable?

RICK LYMAN: Well, that’s right. It was only — the mandatory evacuation applied only to the low-lying coastal counties and some parts of Harris County which includes Houston that are particularly — that are low-lying and prone to flooding. The areas that were not in that mandatory evacuation just fell under a voluntary evacuation.

RAY SUAREZ: And in the emergency management plan for Houston, are people asked to go to specific places? I mean it is a very large city, more than two million people. You can’t have everybody trying to go to the same place, can you?

RICK LYMAN: No, you can’t. And there are not people… there were not specific locations people were told to go to. It is pretty much whichever city they have relatives in or a hotel room. What they did try to do was to evacuate different parts of the mandatory evacuation areas at different hours so that everybody wasn’t hitting the road at the same time.

RAY SUAREZ: So in your view, and you’ve been on the streets of the city all day, there are still substantial numbers of people who plan to stay behind?

RICK LYMAN: Oh, absolutely, yes. I would say a great number of people. People refer back to Hurricane Ellison in 1983; they say they don’t expect this one to be much worse, especially if it follows the path towards Louisiana. And they are just going to ride it out. They say that New Orleans is a different city, with different problems from Houston and they are just – they are going to go home and, hope that the worst that happens is they lose some shingles.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about that idea that New Orleans is a different city. A look at a map would seem to indicate that Houston is not right on the water. What about its geography makes it still vulnerable to a storm like this?

RICK LYMAN: Yeah, well, I used to live in Houston. I don’t at the moment but several years ago I lived in Houston. I didn’t go through a hurricane but I went through several severe tropical storms. And the city is very prone to flooding. It takes two or three storms before you figure out — it seems like a very flat city but it’s not. And you know, there are islands of high points and you have to figure out where they are. And it takes two or three storms to figure that out.

It is essentially built on what, you know, swampy ground, basically. And it is one of those cities that houses don’t have basements and the water table is just fairly near to where, you know, where you are sitting at the dining room table.

RAY SUAREZ: There is also a significant network of canals. Does the water rise inside those? It is an important port.

RICK LYMAN: It does. Almost every neighborhood that I visited people were able to tell me, well, you know, there is this particular bayou is the first one to flood up, and certainly that one is going to flood up tomorrow. So if I lived within two blocks of there, I would be moving but I’m four blocks away and I’m not worried about it. So it’s the sort of city that people are very aware of how close they are to the flood lines.

RAY SUAREZ: When you go around these streets of the city is it still easy to move, is there much evidence of civil authority, in command, in control?

RICK LYMAN: I have seen some police cars driving around. It has been extremely calm in the city. There is almost no traffic. Most of the businesses are closed down. There are a few businesses that are open, a handful of gas stations. I saw a couple of giant pharmacies that were open and actually some restaurants. But for the most part places are closed down. The giant Galleria Mall on the west side of the city is completely closed down. You know, the — downtown there is some traffic on the streets. For most of the day, I haven’t seen one for a while, there were these giant articulated city buses that were kind of cruising the streets with nobody in them.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a general awareness that the storm track may be changing a little bit, and Houston may not have to bear the brunt of this storm?

RICK LYMAN: I think that definitely. This is not something that people are ignoring. They are paying very close attention to it. And you know, it is a city not unlike New Orleans that has been threatened over the years many times by hurricanes. And people have a pretty good sense of how hurricanes work and what news is good news.

RAY SUAREZ: Rick Lyman of the New York Times, joining us from Houston, thanks a lot, Rick.

RICK LYMAN: Thank you, so long.