Friday, September 12, 2008

Why can't we adopt the Cuban hurricane plan?

It appears that hurricane Ike is set to nail the Texas coast, the city of Houston and a quarter of American oil refining capacity. I've already heard that when we wake up tomorrow morning gasoline prices may be up by as much as a half dollar (we filled both our vehicles this evening and lent my daughter twenty bucks so she could buy gas in case those rumors turn out to be right.)

I hope and pray that there is little loss of life (I'd say none, but one man in Corpus Christi, two hundred miles away, has already drowned in heavy surf).

There are some troubling questions I have right now though. The first is why when a mandatory evacuation was ordered for Galveston, so many coastal residents-- as many as a quarter million according to one site I read-- didn't leave. I know that about two weeks ago a lot of them left for Gustav, which weakened and then hit over two hundred miles away in Louisiana. But this was cleary much more dangerous than Gustav, it just seems to me that it is incredibly stupid to hang out on a low lying coastal island with a major hurricane coming. Well, I guess I should feel lucky that I live in a place without many natural disasters.

Now, I know why they haven't evacuated Houston. There was a botched evacuation three years ago for hurricane Rita and the highways ground to a standstill so that more people actually died out on the highway (of both storm-caused and non-storm caused accidents and other problems) than would have died if they'd all stayed home. But the question that has to be asked then is this: why haven't planners over the past three years developed a better evacuation plan for Houston? They knew this day would be here sooner or later. Not only could they have developed a secure network of local shelters (more on that later) but if necessary the state police have the authority to close highways, and if they have to even reverse highways (so that all lanes would lead in the same direction.) That would double the number of lanes available for evacuees. But for some reason they twiddled their thumbs for three years so that now that Houston is again a target all they can do is tell people to remain at home. Let's hope that Ike doesn't flood Houston too badly and that the inevitable damage to homes won't lead to loss of life.

There is another question that will have to be asked if Ike kills a lot of people (or even if it does not): Ike, as a much stronger category four storm, raked every bit of Cuba, crossing the island near its eastern end, with the eye running parallel to and just offshore for a couple of days as it worked its way up the island and then coming back onshore and nailing Havana. It then exited the island at very nearly the same point as Gustav had (and remember that Gustav was also a category four when it encountered Cuba). Yet in spite of what could have been a horrific loss of life (as there has been in Haiti, where Gustav, Hanna and Ike have likely killed at least a thousand people together-- maybe more, maybe many more) the total loss of life from all three hurricanes (Hanna also brushed by Cuba on the northeast) has been five (all from Ike.) Why do these things kill so few people in Cuba even when they are directily in the path? The answer is simple. In Cuba they have a network of local shelters, similar to bomb shelters where local residents can report and ride out the storm. In urban areas they are close enough for most people to walk to, but even in rural ares they are ubiquitous enough that people won't have to take very long to get to one.

I know, Cuba is a repressive communist dictatorship. True, it is. But that doesn't mean they can't do some things right, and the network of safe local shelthers makes a lot of sense. It is a smart alternative to being forced to choose between two risky alternatives-- evacuating millions of people down a few highways within a few hours, or hoping and praying that nothing happens to people who 'ride it out' in their homes.

But building safe local shelters would make entirely too much sense here, so expect no one to suggest that we do.

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