FEMA Official Upbeat on Rita Response

Steve Inskeep talks to Scott Wells a FEMA official working on recovery from Hurricane Rita in Texas. Though some have criticized how Texas handled the evacuation of Houston and other areas, Wells says the local and state response to Hurricane Rita was effective.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A little bit to the west, the state of Texas is trying to learn some lessons from Hurricane Rita. Governor Rick Perry is setting up a task force to study last week's evacuation of people living in the Gulf Coast region. The governor considers the evacuation of Houston a success, although many travelers endured hours-long traffic jams, complicated by serious shortages of fuel. We're going next to Scott Wells, the federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Rita in Texas. He's with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Now before Rita, Wells had been in Louisiana, helping the rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina. He says one of the biggest differences between the two storms was the effect on communications.

Mr. SCOTT WELLS (Federal Emergency Management Agency): For Rita, I've been at the state emergency op center, and we maintained communications with the counties, with the county judges and the mayors, throughout the operation. There was no down time. Hurricane Katrina was just the opposite. I was at the state EOC in Baton Rouge.

INSKEEP: The emergency operation center?

Mr. WELLS: Yes, sir. And as soon as that storm hit, we lost all communications with New Orleans and all the parishes in that surrounding area. And that went on for days and we had no picture of what was going on in New Orleans or those parishes for a long time.

INSKEEP: Are the communications better this time because you did something different or just because it didn't turn out to be quite as bad a storm?

Mr. WELLS: Well, it wasn't as bad a storm, and I don't--we didn't do anything different. So I think most people fail to realize that the infrastructure and emergency management, the strength of it, really relies at the local and state level. And whatever infrastructure they put in place prior to storms and hurricanes, be it emergency generators or communications, has a huge impact on post-disaster response operations.

INSKEEP: So you have been a witness to two major evacuations of American cities--first the evacuation of New Orleans, then the evacuation of Houston.

Mr. WELLS: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: How would you rate the evacuation of Houston, effective or ineffective?

Mr. WELLS: I didn't come here to grade papers and I'm not going to grade it.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wells, the acting FEMA director said on NPR over the weekend that he believed it was the right thing for Houston to evacuate given that the hurricane could have gone that way. In the end, it really didn't, but was it the right thing for so many people to evacuate? In the end, there were far more people on the highways than authorities expected.

Mr. WELLS: Well, yeah--evacuations are really the responsibility of individuals and of the local and state jurisdictions, and I'm not going to second-guess them. And if it had have gone up there and people did not evacuate, then you'd have had many losses. To second-guess people because the hurricane changed, I'm not sure that's appropriate.

INSKEEP: Well, then, so that's not what I'm doing here, though.

Mr. WELLS: Oh.

INSKEEP: I mean, I'm asking about the number of people that chose to go. Houston authorities had something more than a million people they'd identified who should leave, and in the end, 2.5 million, perhaps, more actually got on the road. As if the hurricane had gone directly in Houston and people had been caught on the roads, the mayor of Houston said the highways would be a death trap. That does raise the question about whether next time, if there were a next time--and there might be for some major American city--if something should have been done differently--if something should be done differently.

Mr. WELLS: Oh. Oh. Well, I don't know. I'm not an expert at evacuations, and all I can say is, from my standpoint, it was effective and all of the people were out of harm's way that needed to be, and we have not had any post-disaster response operations to save people because they didn't get out.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to Scott Wells of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mr. Wells, thanks very much.

Mr. WELLS: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: And you can read a brief history of how America's handled past disasters, from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, by going to npr.org.

This is NPR News.

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