Case Study: The Decisions Leading up to the Deadly Hurricane Rita Evacuation

By Francisco Sánchez, Jr. and Mary Leigh Meyer


The historic 2005 Atlantic hurricane season marked the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record while causing widespread loss of life and massive damage. What was initially expected by Colorado State University to be a slightly above-average season, resulted in seven major hurricanes that reached Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale: Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Maria, Rita, Wilma, and Beta (Gray & Klotzbach, 2005). Altogether, the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season resulted in 3,913 deaths and an estimated $159.2 billion in damage. It was a season of many firsts; the first with 28 named storms, the first with 15 hurricanes, the first with four Category 5 hurricanes, and the first with four major hurricanes striking the United States (NOAA, 2006). Of that activity, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita would leave lingering lessons and criticisms of hurricane planning and response.

Hurricane Katrina created devastation across the Gulf Coast, with the brunt striking Louisiana and Mississippi. The response to the great hurricane seemed to fail at the local, state, and federal levels. With many stranded in New Orleans’ low lying and vulnerable communities as the storm approached and in the wake of the levee breach, human casualties would mount. Too many were left in the danger zone. Those that were evacuated post-landfall from New Orleans by authorities found themselves in distant cities. Houston would be the destination to many of those in the gravest circumstances, where they would find refuge at the iconic Astrodome. In the end, the New Orleans-Houston dynamic would become a tale of two cities on many fronts. Not only did Hurricane Katrina result in the massive permanent migration of more than 200,000 Louisianans to Houston, but Houston would find itself in the path of powerful Hurricane Rita only weeks after opening up the massive shelter operation at the Astrodome. Houstonians saw first-hand the faces of those that had been left with nothing, ravaged by Katrina. As Rita barreled toward the Texas-Louisiana coast with Houston in the center of the forecast cone, the 2,000 or so evacuees still sheltered at the Astrodome would be flown out of state to Fort Smith, Arkansas for their own protection. Anxiety was high for those who remained at the domed stadium and had not yet been transitioned to housing; they were the last to evacuate for Katrina but the first to evacuate for Rita. The people of southeast Texas now found themselves facing very similar challenges and questions as those faced by New Orleans officials under the threat of a major hurricane. Unlike Katrina, those in the potential path of Rita would leave en masse. The response to Rita created one of the largest, deadliest urban evacuations in history with millions of residents fleeing Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.

The unpredictability and massive size of Hurricane Rita, paired with the uncomfortable proximity to Hurricane Katrina, provides an interesting parallel and context. While they were two different storms, their legacy is intertwined with respect to how officials looked at and managed hurricane evacuations. The victims of Katrina perished in rising floods the water and while the victims of Rita perished on dry freeways. Because of the short time frame between each storm and the relief efforts for Katrina that were still actively underway across many states, some of the lessons learned from Katrina in New Orleans had not yet settled in across the emergency management community. because the relief effort for the hurricane was still actively underway across many states. This led toThere would be distinct similarities but also sharp contrasts and sharp contrasts in how officials in New Orleans and Houston handled evacuation and planning issues.

The Backdrop of Hurricane Katrina Leading Up to Hurricane Rita

The story of Hurricane Rita begins three weeks prior to its landfall with the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. As Katrina approached, more than “1.2 million people along the northern Gulf coast from Southeastern Louisiana to Alabama were under some type of evacuation order” (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, 2005) and “most expected to return to their homes in a day or two, but when the levees broke and New Orleans flooded, they were stranded with little more than the clothes on their backs and nowhere to go” (Kurth & Burckel, 2006). There were a total of 1,833 deaths due to the storm and estimated damages of $108 billion. New Orleans’ population “fell from 484,674 in April 2000 to 230,172 in July 2006, a decrease of over 50%” (CNN Library, 2016). In and of itself, the massive hurricane was catastrophic and would be the costliest disaster in American history. Its legacy would also include being one of the five deadliest hurricanes to ever strike the United States (NOAA, 2006). The response to Katrina would exacerbate the devastation and bring crippling criticism, destabilize the federal response network, have political repercussions at all levels, and have lingering effects that are felt to this day.

The Approach of Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath

Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast like a slow, steady, and ominous drumbeat. As it drew closer and raged louder, its danger grew and arrival became inevitable. The forecast of the storm was steady throughout the weeks preceding its landfall, and the strength and track varied little from the National Hurricane Center’s predictions. However, the evacuation timeline issued in response failed to reflect the severity of the situation.

The approach of Hurricane Katrina toward the Gulf Coast was a slow, steady, and ominous drumbeat. As it got closer and louder, it became clearly more dangerous and inevitable. The response in terms of the evacuation timeline did not reflect the severity of the situation. The forecast of the storm was steady, and its strength and track varied little from what the National Hurricane Center predicted.

Thursday, August 25th

Katrina finally becomes a hurricane as a Category 1 with sustained maximum winds of 75 miles per hour. The storm makes landfall north of Miami (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005).

Friday, August 26th

Katrina becomes a Category 2 hurricane by 11:00 a.m. with 100 mile per hour maximum sustained winds. It is moving 45 miles northwest of the Florida Keys. The forecast calls for an eventual northward track toward the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005).

Media reports and some officials cite particular concern for New Orleans because much of the city is below sea level. Also, in 2001, FEMA had listed the three most likely major disasters to severely impact the nation were a California earthquake, a hurricane striking New Orleans, and a terror attack in New York City (Frontline, 2016).

Saturday, August 27th

Katrina becomes a major hurricane at a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 115 miles per hour, located only 335 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi with expected storm surge to be between 15–25 feet (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005).

Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center director, reportedly tells New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, “the storm is headed right for you” and “I’ve never seen a hurricane like this in my 33-year career and you need to order a mandatory evacuation” (Frontline, 2016). Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco requests a presidential disaster declaration. However, Mayor Nagin does not issue a mandatory evacuation. In fact, the mayor is non-committal on suggesting much of anything to do with leaving the city, saying “we may call for a voluntary evacuation later this afternoon or tomorrow morning” (Brinkley, 2006). During a noon news conference at city hall, “Nagin strained to seem like a man in charge” (Brinkley, 2006).

Sunday, August 28th

As of 7:00 a.m., Katrina is now a powerful Category 5 hurricane with 160 mile per hour maximum sustained winds. It is 250 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River with a projected storm surge between 18–28 feet (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005). A hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center for the north central Gulf Coast, including the city of New Orleans.

The hurricane warning language is ominous,: “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks…at least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure…persons, pets, and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death…human suffering incredible by modern standards” (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005).

At 9:00 a.m., Mayor Nagin bypasses the voluntary evacuation he pondered the day prior and issues a mandatory evacuation. Landfall is expected the next morning.

News reports from the Times-Picayune suggest that an estimated 112,000 people do not own cars and the Rapid Transit Authority begins transporting residents to the Superdome. While thousands without transportation make their way to the Superdome for emergency shelter, others with a way out flee the city (Frontline, 2016). By the end of the day, there are 30,000 people at the Superdome, a facility that under emergency plans is expected to house no more than 15,000.

Monday, August 29th

At 6:00 a.m., Hurricane Katrina makes landfall as a Category 4 storm with 145 mile per hour maximum sustained winds but there is widespread belief that New Orleans avoided a direct hit (Knabb, Rhone, & Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report — Hurricane Katrina, 2005).

By late morning, FEMA learns that water is overtopping levees in the 9th Ward. There are “reports of breaks in the Industrial Canal and 17th Street Canal levees” (Frontline, 2016). President Bush issues a major disaster declaration for Louisiana and Mississippi. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and President George W. Bush have not spoken, yet. Immediate damage assessments find major damage to the I-10 Bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, phone and electric service are disrupted, and officials fear that as many as 770,000 people are in danger and cut off from assistance. (Frontline, 2016).

After Landfall

Two days later, 85% of the city was underwater and by the end of the day on the 31st, there were still more 30,000 people taking refuge in the Superdome. Thousands were stranded in submerged homes, many stranded on rooftops. The world fixated on the Superdome; the Louisiana National Guard only stocked the Superdome with enough food and water to sustain 15,000 people for three days. The lack of supplies caused an unprecedented amount of looting throughout the city, with blame falling on Governor Blanco. The state National Guard troops are to cease civil unrest during times like this. For several days after the storm, the looting was ravisheding the desolated city, but and the state sent minimal to no help. The Bush administration requested control of the state law enforcement, however the request was denied. The Governor then sent an official request for more troops two full days after the storm hit. The city was void of a massive rescue operation; first responders were sparse.

When Governor Blanco learned the levees could not be fixed, she ordered the Superdome and the rest of New Orleans to evacuate. There were 9,668 Army National Guard and 956 Air National Guard sent in to help. In an interview with PBS, the FEMA director, Michael Brown said “Governor Blanco probably should have asked for help sooner” and that he probably should have done the same (Frontline, 2016).

Katrina is “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in US history,” and it resulted in one of the most controversial governmental responses to date (FEMA, 2006). The timing, or delay, of the evacuation order has gone down as one of the most controversial decisions in American hurricane history. Critics say Mayor Nagin should have called for a mandatory evacuation sooner. The mayor stalled, for fear that “hotel owners — at the center of the city’s $5 billion tourism trade — might be in a position to sue if their businesses were to be disrupted because of a mandatory evacuation” (Brinkley, 2006).

While an earlier evacuation might not have minimized damage, it certainly would have reduced the loss of life. Additionally, the response at the state and federal levels were greatly critiqued as well. Discussion and policy change filled the air. While coastal cities still struggled for help in the aftermath of Katrina, a second Category 5 storm would head toward the Gulf Coast; this one even more powerful than Katrina. These developments and decisions around Hurricane Katrina are the backdrop to examining the response to Hurricane Rita.

Hurricane Rita Emerges

Following in Hurricane Katrina’s footsteps, Hurricane Rita quickly developed into not only the strongest storm in 2005 but also became the strongest storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. At its most powerful, its cloud cover overtook the entire Gulf in satellite imagery. With the miserable response to Katrina still the focus of national attention, the new storm dominated headlines and was billed by many as the next Katrina. In the end, Rita resulted in up to 125 deaths and caused damage in excess of $12 billion (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). Texas reported the greatest number of deaths from the hurricane, with 113 deaths. Of those deaths, 107 were directly associated with the evacuation from the Houston metropolitan area. More than “one million” from the Houston area “hit the road, producing gridlock for miles and miles toward the north and west,” (Christian, 2013). According to Texas Department of Transportation officials, about 3.7 million people evacuated the southeast Texas coast. The millions of people that who evacuated but were not actually asked to officially do so became known by emergency managers as the “shadow evacuation.” The evacuation chaos resulted in significant changes to Texas hurricane evacuation planning.

The Approach of Hurricane Rita and the Deadly Evacuation

Hurricane Rita evolved from a tropical storm to one of the most powerful Category 5 hurricanes on record in less than 36 hours, with a peak intensity of 180 mile per hour winds (National Hurricane Center, 2006). Furthermore, tropical storm strength winds extended as far as 160 nautical miles from the eye of the hurricane (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). As for its natural impacts, Rita produced a significant storm surge that devastated coastal communities in southwestern Louisiana, and its winds, rain, and tornadoes caused fatalities and a wide swath of damage from eastern Texas to Alabama. An estimated surge of 15 feet pushed as far inland as 25 miles in the low-lying, susceptible communities near the Texas-Louisiana border (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). Additionally, there were an estimated 90 tornadoes that formed as a direct result of this storm.

For context, the lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina remained a fresh wound in the arena of public opinion. Officials at the local, state, and federal levels were eager to get it right this time. Michael Chertoff, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary at the time, reported t that “it’s really all hands-on deck to deal with [Rita]…we are taking it very seriously and we are leaning as far forward as we can in preparation” (CNN, 2005). The Washington Post noted that, “federal emergency managers positioned twice as many search-and-rescue teams in Texas as they did in Louisiana last month. Officials fueled more than 900 buses for evacuation and rescue, and placed on standby 12 heavy-lift military helicopters, six transport aircraft and dozens of civilian aircraft — equipment in short supply immediately after Katrina” (Hsu & Hendrix, 2005). Reinforcing this sentiment, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced that same day, “It is quite likely it will be a devastating storm…Now is the time to leave”. It is at this point that Rita would aim toward the Texas coast a mere twenty-three days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Policy and planning changes had yet to be finalized, let alone implemented. Adding to this, Michael Brown resigned as FEMA director, thus David Paulison was appointed barely two weeks before Hurricane Rita formed. A myriad of litigation against insurance companies and complaints about government response quickly became sensationalized in the media. This turbulent political environment and unfortunate timeline caused one of the largest, deadliest urban evacuations in United States history.

Tuesday, September 20th

After passing through the Florida Keys as a tropical storm, Hurricane Rita escalates to a Category 3 hurricane. The forecast track shows steady west-northwest and westward tracks that aim at the south to central Texas coast (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). The intensity and forecast of the storm causes the city of New Orleans to pause all plans to bring back displaced residents from Katrina. Houston officials who had opened the Astrodome as a mega shelter for Katrina move the 2,000 or so remaining evacuees out of state in advance of any potential hurricane strike.

Mayor of Galveston Island, Lyda Ann Thomas, declares a state of emergency. Texas officials review transportation studies completed just prior to the 2004 hurricane season, which indicate that “the existing roads could handle the expected traffic surge” from a hurricane evacuation (Disaster Resource Guide, 2006).

Wednesday, September 21st

With little notice, Hurricane Rita develops into a record-breaking, Category 5 storm, raising alarm bells in the communities of southeast Texas. The forecast worsens in the late evening for greater Houston, showing the potential for a strike in the Galveston/Houston area. At this time, it is clear that the storm is rapidly intensifying and is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

A worrisome development, “the rapid intensification of Rita between September 20th and the 21st, from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 36 hours, was not anticipated in official intensity forecasts” (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). What officials had believed would remain a tropical storm or low intensity hurricane, overnight becomes the most powerful storm to ever enter the Gulf of Mexico. The coast, the community, its officials, and the National Hurricane Center are caught off guard by these dramatic changes. None of the National Hurricane Center’s Public Advisories even mention the possibility that Rita “could reach Category Five intensity” until 10 a.m. on September 21st (Avila, Hurricane RITA Advisory Number 16, 2005). It is only 6 hours later in their 4 p.m. Public Advisory when they announce Rita has become an “extremely dangerous Category Five hurricane” (Avila, Hurricane RITA Advisory Number 17, 2005).

Houston area officials typically like to make evacuation decisions between 60–72 hours from landfall for a major hurricane. As for evacuating persons with functional access needs for a major hurricane, that is typically done 72 hours before landfall.

The National Weather Service’s long range forecast indicates Rita will hit Texas around the Galveston area by the 24th, so Texas officials begin preparatory actions for a major hurricane instead of a tropical storm or low-intensity hurricane. Suggested evacuations for several coastal counties are announced, buses for possible evacuations are identified, and evacuation routes to shelters are finalized. Galveston County orders a mandatory evacuation effective at 6 p.m. that urges residents to leave in a staggered sequence. Houston, a pass through city for Galveston evacuees, coordinated closely with the coastal community to allow island residents a way out first. This planned evacuation is intended to occur over a 24 hour time period. Other officials cast a wider net. Texas Governor Rick Perry tells coastal citizens that “homes and businesses can be rebuilt. Lives cannot…If you’re on the coast between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, now’s the time to leave” (Hughes, Gonzalez, & Pinkerton, 2005)

Section 418 of the Texas Government Code names the mayor and county judge the emergency management director for their respective jurisdictions. As such, both have the authority to issue evacuation orders in overlapping jurisdictions. Where there is a conflict between the two, the county judge prevails.

Houston Mayor Bill White orders voluntary evacuations for certain areas immediately and officials indicate that a mandatory evacuation for Houston proper is likely scheduled for the next morning, after Galveston area and coastal residents have the opportunity to leave.

There is confusion in the media about the difference between voluntary and mandatory evacuations. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer inquires if there is “a mandatory evacuation in Houston or is this voluntary”? Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt responds, “thereThere is a mandatory, and mandatory does not mean that we’re going to force people to leave.” This is the first time in Texas that a mandatory evacuation order can be issued under Texas law but there is no mechanism for local officials to enforce it.

With widespread public concern, many do not distinguish between the voluntary and mandatory evacuations. The maps being used to guide residents about evacuation zones were crafted by engineers and not friendly for public viewing or easily displayed on television screens. The maps were exceedingly precise; one side of a street may be in an evacuation zone while the neighbor across the street might not be.

The outcome is problematic. A study by the Texas Department of Transportation and the Governor’s Evacuation Task Force after Hurricane Rita found that 42% of people outside the evacuation areas left. The chief’s messaging is also convoluted. In the same CNN interview, Chief Hurtt adds that officials will not stop anyone from leaving and “we are in the process of adjusting the plans to accommodate everybody that wants to leave.”

Thursday, September 22nd

Despite the evacuation being called, there is now reason for mild optimism in the forecast. The midday track guidance for Rita suggests that it is “expected to shift eastward allowing Rita to take a more northwesterly and northerly track,” (National Hurricane Center, 2005). If that pans out, it will be some relief for Houston and Galveston from significant damage and avoid the deadly upper right quadrant of the storm. Officials at the City of Houston and in surrounding communities proceed with the mandatory evacuation anyway. The voluntary evacuation is already underway, the risk is too high, and the forecast seems to shift significantly from day-to-day. Houston Mayor Bill White is adamant, “don’t wait, the time for waiting is over…don’t follow the example of New Orleans” (Blumenthal, 2005). He also reminds residents about the disaster in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Residents pay little attention to the planned staggered evacuation, instead leaving as soon as they can. After heavy traffic clogs roads leading out of town and gas shortages leave numerous vehicles stranded, Mayor White backs off his earlier statement and asks residents to follow the news and use common sense if they are not in the mandatory evacuation area. However, by that afternoon, 100-mile traffic jams and gasoline shortages plague Houston (Wu, Lindell, & Prater, 2012).

96 hours before a major hurricane landfall in the Houston area, bus contracts for evacuations should be activated and special shelters out of town for persons with functional access needs should be ready to receive evacuees.

There is a lot of discussion between local and state officials about implementing a contra-flow plan to accommodate the massive surge in traffic and shadow evacuation. Texas does not immediately implement a contra-flow plan, which opens all lanes going out in one direction toward safety, because there is no such written plan at the time.

Additionally, the area is waiting for inboundthose valuable lanes are still needed for incoming disaster relief supplies that will be critical in Rita’s aftermath. Those valuable lanes are still needed for incoming resources to make their way to the city because FEMA, under immense public pressure, is use the inbound lanes for transport as they gathering and pre-stageing large quantities of supplies throughout Texas and Louisiana. The federal government makes sure they are “better prepared and in better position to respond,” in the words of White House spokesman Scott McClellan, as they learn their lessons from Hurricane Katrina (Mittelstadt, 2005). The suffering of those stuck after Katrina and the inability to deliver relief in a timely fashion is fresh on everyone’s mind. A Jefferson Parish emergency manager, Walter Maestri, provides a face to that hardship as he reportsed to having loot in order to survive. He notesd “the parish presidents, the head of counties, have the authority to use private resources”. Therefore, “we [began]begin looting…we had 60 hours’ worth of resources that we had stored, but we’re out of it” (Frontline, 2016). This time aroundTo not repeat that fatal mistake of the Katrina response effort, Texas emergency managers did not want to make the same mistake so they keptmake sure they keep the inbound lanes open.

More than a day after mass evacuations begin, “state and local officials finally open all lanes going only outbound on the two interstates, a cumbersome process that involves barricading more than 100 exit and entrance ramps to prevent head-on collisions” (Batheja, 2015). To many drivers, the conversion comes too late. The average travel time to Dallas during the logjam is about 24–36 hours, to Austin is 12–18 hours, and to San Antonio is 10–16 hours. Mayor Bill White calls for military assistance to help stranded drivers by saying “being on the highway is a death trap” (Christian, 2013). Meanwhile, another 13,000 Louisiana residents evacuate for Hurricane Rita as a precautionary measure.

At the end of the day, the morning forecast holds and the path of the storm shifts north compared to past forecasts. This is the first day that the possibility of the storm missing Houston is in fact likely, and on top of that, it is reported the storm is expected to slightly deteriorate before landfall. However, evacuations of the Houston area are still in full force as the Texas and Louisiana coasts are beginning to see storm surge. Even though the storm is predicted to deteriorate, the fear in the communities of southeast Texas is rampant and millions along the coast, including the greater Houston area, continue to flee in historic numbers.

Friday, September 23rd

Hurricane Rita weakens overnight, even more so than expected (Knabb, Brown, & Rhome, 2006). The forecast track, however, continues to hold and moves away from a direct hit to the Houston/Galveston area. The midday product by the National Hurricane Center calls for “landfall near the upper Texas or southwestern Louisiana coast early Saturday” (National Hurricane Center, 2005).

Under local planning guidance, Houston officials hope to have all evacuees out of the area well in advance of 20 hours before a major hurricane landfall. By 24 hours before landfall, rescue teams and emergency supplies should be staged and ready to deploy.

FEMA declares both the states of Louisiana and Texas a public health emergency and FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison says the federal team has done all it can up to this point and “right now, we just have to wait out the storm, see exactly where it makes landfall, and then move ahead with our supplies that we have on the ground” (NBC News, 2005). There are mass quantities of supplies, troops, and resources ready to be mobilized from the Astrodome at any point.

As the day progresses, Hurricane Rita deescalates to a Category 3 hurricane. With the help of contraflow lanes, the highways are clear well in advance of a landfall expected in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 24th. Officials from Houston TranStar, Harris County’s transportation and emergency management center, see almost no cars moving on Houston area freeways by the afternoon. In fact, it is eerily quiet. They often recognize the few vehicles moving on the freeway system as responder vehicles or co-workers heading to their storm ride-out locations. Storm surge, however, is already creating problems. It pokes another hole in the New Orleans’ levee system, causing parts of the city to flood again for the second time in one month.

This is also the most harrowing day for loss of life during the Hurricane Rita evacuation. Among the many to evacuate that are not in an evacuation zone are residents of the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire, Texas. Bellaire is situated near the Galleria in Houston, far enough from the coast that it will not be affected from storm surge and have only minimal wind damage. The bus carrying the home’s senior residents departs their facility on Thursday, September 22nd. On Friday, “fifteen hours later, the bus was a charred hulk on the side of Interstate 45, with 4 bodies inside and investigators seeking the cause of a fire and explosion that tore through the bus in the Dallas suburb of Wilmer,” (Belli & Faulkenberg, 2005).

A total of 24 people perish in the flames that engulf the bus. Most of the survivors are near the front exit or are thrown out the window by first responders who do their best when they arrive. The injured are taken to area hospitals. City of Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel says the nursing home is not in a mandatory evacuation zone but that Bellaire officials “strongly urged the officials of nursing homes in Bellaire to evacuate their residents on Thursday” (Belli & Faulkenberg, 2005).

Saturday, September 24th

At 3:30 a.m. Hurricane Rita makes landfall at 3:30 a.m. close to the Texas-Louisiana border as a Category 3 hurricane. Then twelve hours after landfall, Rita deescalates to a tropical storm. Luckily, the storm does not hit any major cities. Most major flooding occurs in previously evacuated parishes of Louisiana. In the end, many people that evacuated east and northeast from Houston to avoid the storm find themselves in its direct path.

After Landfall

While Hurricane Rita was a massive storm, its legacy is the death toll resulting from the evacuation rather than the storm impact itself. An estimated 3.7 million people evacuated from the Texas coastline, marking the largest evacuation in American history. According to media reports, the combination of gridlock, excessive heat, and other contributing factors lead to at least 107 evacuation-related deaths. Since the storm, Texas emergency managers have adopted a contra-flow plan, worked with fuel suppliers to infuse a surge of gasoline along evacuation corridors before a storm hits, simplified evacuation zone maps, and enhanced evacuation planning for persons with functional access needs. There is strong consensus that the Hurricane Katrina evacuation was called too late, since most of the remaining residents were unable to evacuate themselves. Questions remain whether the Hurricane Rita evacuation from Houston was called too early, too late, or should have even been called at all. Both are humbling reminders to emergency managers about the limitations of forecasts, technology, and understanding of public perception during times of crisis. Although, the post-Rita studies are very clear. A survey by KHOU-11 and the Houston Chronicle reveals:

· 21% of evacuees spent more than 20 hours on the road

· 24.5% evacuated out of fear of the storm

· 21.1% of evacuees left for safety concerns

· 21.3% left because of the mandatory evacuation order

· Of those who stayed, 21% said they did not leave due to heavy traffic

· 45.3% said their decisions were influenced by media completely

· 79.6% of evacuees reached their intended destination

· 34.2% evacuated on Wednesday, 52.9% on Thursday, 7.8% on Friday


Target Audience

Emergency management practitioners, undergraduate students, policy makers, forecasters, and transportation officials.


The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was historic, marking the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record while causing widespread loss of life and massive damage. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita leave lingering lessons and criticisms of hurricane planning and response. On one hand, there is consensus that the late call for an evacuation of New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina contributed greatly to the significant loss of life. The widespread criticism of the local, state, and federal response to Katrina was on the minds of Texas officials and the public as Hurricane Rita approached. Officials in Texas facing Rita just three weeks after Katrina’s devastation had to weigh the public sentiment in their decisions. It is important to remember that the forecast for Hurricane Katrina remained largely stable and turned out to be highly accurate 48–60 hours out from landfall; the warnings were dire. Hurricane Rita, on the other hand, was a different story. The storm went unexpectedly from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane only four days before landfall. The expected track shifted significantly and there was low confidence in the overall forecast. Millions fled the southeast Texas due to fear of what was billed by media as a “monster storm.” Most did not need to flee and more people died as a result of the evacuation than the storm’s natural impacts. It is debatable whether the Rita evacuation in the greater Houston area was called too early, too late, or should have been called for at all. The evacuation decision for Rita is the core element of this case study.

Learning Objectives

While there is synergy between Katrina and Rita in terms of how the evacuations played out, there are more lessons learned than meet the eye. Certainly, evacuation improvements resulted from both storms. Planning timelines have been improved, there is a renewed emphasis on evacuation procedures and resources, plans are in place for special needs evacuees, and public information strategies have been adjusted. Some of the less appreciated lessons from the Rita evacuation:

· It is important to remember that each storm is unique and learn its lessons

· It is important to respond to the current storm, not the previous one

· Do not evacuate from one hurricane area to another hurricane area

· Forecasts are unstable and uncertain

· Internal plans by officials may not be accepted by the public

· Media plays a significant role in how the public responds

· Decisions are only as good as the current information allows them to be

Teaching Strategy

It is helpful to walk participants through the timeline and consequences of Hurricane Katrina, as they are the backdrop to how Hurricane Rita played out. The catastrophic failure of the Katrina response was central to both how officials and the public responded; the images of the disaster and human suffering were still being broadcast nationally as Rita approached. Looking at the summary of each day, one at a time, leading up to landfall is crucial rather than looking at it as a whole scenario; this allows the participants to view decisions in the context of what information was available to decision makers on that given day.

Questions for Discussion

· What is the current forecast?

· How does the forecast differ from yesterday?

· How might the forecast be different tomorrow?

· What decision would you be making now concerning evacuation?

· How would your decision about evacuation affect residents, business, and surrounding communities?

· Does evacuating businesses hinder or help the response? How does this affect disaster relief?

· Is this the right time to make the evacuation decision?

· How do you view the difference or need between voluntary/mandatory evacuations?

· How confident are you in your current position?

· Once you make this decision, what are your future options or limitations?


These videos may be useful in advance of presenting the case. Shorter videos may be useful as participants walk through the case.

Lessons Learned: Hurricane Rita

“Hurricane Rita taught us a lot about evacuation” — John Dawon, FOX 26

Hurricane Rita: Evacuation Nightmare

“That was one of the big lessons of this evacuation: they didn’t open up the inbound lanes for outbound traffic” — The Weather Channel

Extended CNN Coverage: Hurricane Rita

“People have learned the lessons from Katrina and the leadership here is working very hard to get as many people to leave as possible” — Anderson Cooper, CNN


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Blumenthal, R. (2005, September 23). Miles of Traffic as Texans Heed Order to Leave. The New York Times.

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