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Thousands of Texans Flee Oncoming Hurricane Ike

September 11, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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Federal and state authorities have organized an evacuation and communication program to prepare for Hurricane Ike, which is expected to hit the Texas Gulf Coast late Friday. Houston Mayor Bill White explains the extensive measures being taken before winds and rain sweep the city.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Texas prepares for Hurricane Ike.

A short time ago, Jeffrey Brown spoke with Houston Mayor Bill White.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mayor White, how extensive are the evacuations to this point? And how well is it going?

BILL WHITE, Mayor of Houston, Texas: Well, there are about a quarter-of-a-million people in my county alone, and hundreds of thousands of others in the Texas Gulf Coast which are having to evacuate on fairly short notice because of the turn that this storm took. And, so far, it’s going well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of this is mandatory. And, other people, you’re letting decide for themselves, right? How — explain how that works.

BILL WHITE: Well, you know, there are certain areas which we call the storm surge zones. This is where the forecasts say there could be a wall of water 10 to 20 feet high coming at you.

And, for those individuals, we’re asking them to get out. And thank goodness hundreds of thousands are. But there will be others who need to make their judgment based on the fact that we could have winds of over 100 miles per hour in the nation’s fourth largest city. For most folks, it will be best for them to sort of hunker down in place, keep away from anything that could be flying glass, and for us to regroup right here in Houston.

Lessons learned from Rita

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, people probably remember the experience of Hurricane Rita three years ago...

BILL WHITE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... and a lot of problems, gridlock, and gas shortages. How is it going this time in terms of moving so many people? And what lessons were learned?

BILL WHITE: Now, it's going very well.

There was one lesson that the citizens learned, which was that, if you weren't in the mandatory evacuation area that we discussed, then it wasn't necessary, and it wasn't even very beneficial or safe to load up every vehicle you had and just head inland. That's what happened a lot during Rita.

If you remember, that was right on the heels of Katrina. And, then, I have got to tell you that I have been a lot more impressed with the organization of both the federal and the state authorities this time. I think Americans, from that experience, especially Katrina, started thinking what homeland security really means.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I did want to ask you about that. So, you are feeling that the coordination at all levels, city, state -- city, county, state, and federal government, is working better?

BILL WHITE: Yes. Well, the city and the county and those within the region, we worked well in Katrina, as you recall, as -- in responding to our neighbors' needs, as well as evacuating during Rita, where we had a total evacuation in the storm surge areas.

Now we're seeing more resources, real professionalism by FEMA, I have got to add. And the state that it promised fuel now has fuel, and I'm impressed by the way things are going in Austin.

Evacuation and preparation measures

JEFFREY BROWN: What about help for people without cars or without the ability to move themselves? What is going on?

BILL WHITE: We have an evacuation program, our metropolitan transit authority, METROLift. We have a registration system that was in place before, and we have asked people to call in at a 311 number if they are in a mandatory evacuation area, or special needs.

And, in addition, we have had medical evacuations that have been going on throughout the region now for some days.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the situation at the port of Houston, major economic area, of course?

BILL WHITE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Am I correct in seeing that you are planning to close it down, or it has closed down already?

BILL WHITE: Yes.

Well, you know, if you have hurricane-force winds, you wouldn't want maritime traffic. Now, there are some barges. I talked to the Coast Guard. There is not much you can do with some of the barges. An, so, that is what we're looking at carefully. The Coast Guard is looking.

But the refineries and petrochemical plants began their preparations to be safe and to close down. Again, it's been some 72 hours-plus that people have been working on this time schedule. They have had to compress those time schedules, because Ike took such a sharp turn north, but we should be in good shape.

Online communication system

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask you, finally, I understand you are creating an online hub or some kind of system, so people can let family and friends know what is going on or where they are?

BILL WHITE: Yes, and that's been done through the Red Cross. We innovated it really during Katrina, where we had to match up so many people, a quarter-of-a-million Americans who came this way in the Houston region alone, and just matching people up with loved ones.

But, as you note, when you had Hurricane Eduardo, and you had evacuation in New Orleans just a few weeks ago, they did a much better job of keeping family units intact, and letting people know where each other were.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Houston Mayor Bill White, thanks so much for talking to us. And good luck to you and everybody there.

BILL WHITE: Thank you.