Weather Blog: Hurricane Rita prompts largest evacuation in U.S. history 11 years ago this week

HOUSTON - Rita was the hurricane that wasn't so-to-speak. With its eye starring down on the Houston/Galveston area without a blink, it prompted the largest evacuation in U.S. history only to skate east of the area leaving both cities relatively unscathed.

Here's a video recording from somebody's home television of KHOU 11 during the evacuation. The video shows a gridlocked I-45 at the Rayford/Sawdust exit in Spring:

The 2005 season gave birth to hurricanes that  seemed to be straight out of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie except the horrifying film never ended. It just kept trying to outdo itself with each preceding hurricane.

The star of the show up until that point was Hurricane Katrina, a doomsday storm long feared by those who live in the New Orleans area. A city below sea-level, Katrina delivered on her promise of totally submerging the city and taking over 1,800 people with it.

Hurricane Rita was born just shy of a month after that infamous storm and she meant business.

After moving past the Florida Keys, Rita moved into the central gulf where the storm strengthened rapidly -- powering up to a the strongest category five hurricane on record in the gulf with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph and a pressure of 895 millibars.

With Katrina fresh in the minds of those in Houston and Galveston, chaos ensued and the flight of people began.

Here's a look at the National Hurricane Center's forecast cone from the 5 p.m. updates on September 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd.

Hurricane Rita could have been a worst case scenario for Houston/Galveston. A strong category five hurricane hitting the west end of Galveston could put the damage price tag well in excess of $100 billion or more. It would take years for the Houston economy to recover.

However Rita missed Houston, instead taking aim at the Texas/Louisiana border near Port Arthur as a weakening category three hurricane.

The damage however was done, long before the storm ever arrived. Rita will forever be remembered for its incredible evacuation from the nations fourth largest city and the 107 people it killed in the process from searing heat and accidents including the bus explosion near Dallas due to overheated brakes.

Travel times of 36 to 48 hours to Dallas were common; 18 hours to San Antonio and Austin. The gridlock left many in a panic trying to flee a massive hurricane. Looting was rampant. Gas shortages were everywhere. Gasoline became liquid gold as cars began breaking down as the tanks ran empty.

It was as though the rapture had happened with abandoned cars on every corner of every highway.

After the hurricane, it took a week for everybody to return. To keep the same kind of gridlock from  happening again, city officials implemented a zone return -- dividing up the city into sections and designating a certain return day for that area.

Rita was a vital lesson as to why not everybody should evacuate during a hurricane. The only people that NEED to leave are those that are in a storm surge area. The rule is to hide from the wind and run from the water.

If you are wanting to leave town because you'll be without power for two weeks, fine, but do so after the hurricane has passed. Leave the freeways as empty as possible for those that must get out first.

A few years later in 2008, a strong category two Ike arrived and the evacuation went much more smoothly -- partly because nobody wanted to relive that horrifying experience of sitting on the freeway for 24 hours trying to get to Dallas.

As Houston continues to grow at over 100,000 people per year, it'll be important to remind the newcomers of the rules to evacuation. If Houston doesn't see another hurricane for 10 years, there will be approximately 1.8 million new people here who weren't living here for Ike or Rita. If the lessons of Rita aren't heeded, we'll be doomed to repeat it in the next big emergency.






(© 2016 KHOU)


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