Anticipating Rita

Friday, September 23, 2005

FOR THE PAST 48 hours, the evacuation of the Texas coastline in anticipation of Hurricane Rita has run like clockwork. In Galveston -- a city nearly wiped out by a hurricane a century ago -- nursing homes and hospitals have been carefully, systematically evacuated. Buses have been provided for the indigent and immobile. For the first time in history, freeways leading north and west out of Houston were running in only one direction, although traffic was snarled with breakdowns and gasoline shortages. The National Guard, the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are all prepared. Navy ships are off the coast; the Red Cross is moving in supplies; stores have sold out of batteries and bottled water.

Part of the explanation for what seems, so far, a textbook example of how to do these things right, is, of course, the example of Hurricane Katrina. Had the residents of Houston and Galveston not so recently seen what hurricanes can do to low-lying cities, they might not be so willing to leave as efficiently. Had FEMA not been attacked for incompetence, it's possible the federal response wouldn't have been rapid, either.

It's human nature to react to the last disaster. And, to be fair to New Orleanians, they were in some sense reacting -- perfectly logically -- to years of over-hyped hurricane scares. Particularly if Rita turns out to be less damaging than feared, it's not impossible that similar complacency will set in again. If nothing else, this hurricane season has been a valuable lesson in how important it is for coastal cities to gauge, clearly and honestly, the true strength of hurricanes, and to calibrate their responses accordingly.

But there may be another reason the evacuation is going well: Texas is simply better prepared than was Louisiana. Its state government is richer and better-run. Its police are not so famously corrupt. The 1900 Galveston hurricane weighs heavily on historical memories; children learn about it in school. It may well turn out that this matters enormously: The ability of the federal government and private charity to help is, after all, constrained by the actions of local politicians. The best national emergency plans will almost always turn out to be those that have concentrated hardest on local politicians: cooperating with them, coordinating with them, even training them if necessary. No matter what the Texas coast looks like in a few days' time, Rita's other lesson may be that all emergency preparedness, like all politics, is ultimately local.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company