Will Rita Help Cities Prepare for Terrorism?

Bumper-to-bumper-traffic heads out of Galveston, Texas toward  Houston, Sept. 21 i i

hide captionBumper-to-bumper traffic heads out of Galveston, Texas, toward Houston, Sept. 21. Evacuation of Galveston became mandatory in preparation for Hurricane Rita, taking as long as 5 hours to travel 45 miles.

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Bumper-to-bumper-traffic heads out of Galveston, Texas toward  Houston, Sept. 21

Bumper-to-bumper traffic heads out of Galveston, Texas, toward Houston, Sept. 21. Evacuation of Galveston became mandatory in preparation for Hurricane Rita, taking as long as 5 hours to travel 45 miles.

Corbis
Evacuees arrive in an Austin, Texas shelter, Sept. 24. i i

hide captionEvacuees arrive in an Austin shelter, Sept. 24.

Paul Heltzel, NPR
Evacuees arrive in an Austin, Texas shelter, Sept. 24.

Evacuees arrive in an Austin shelter, Sept. 24.

Paul Heltzel, NPR
Joquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin. i i

hide captionJoquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin. The family has been there since fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

Paul Heltzel, NPR
Joquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin.

Joquita Stevens braids her brother Don's hair at a shelter in Austin. The family has been there since fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

Paul Heltzel, NPR
Lexon Faulk i i

hide captionLexon Faulk sits with evacuees at a Red Cross disaster relief center in Austin. He drove his family from Port Arthur, Texas.

Paul Heltzel, NPR
Lexon Faulk

Lexon Faulk sits with evacuees at a Red Cross disaster relief center in Austin. He drove his family from Port Arthur, Texas.

Paul Heltzel, NPR

The response to Hurricane Rita, on the heels of another Gulf Coast hurricane, leaves questions about how ready the United States is for another major disaster –- natural or man-made. Hurricane Rita evacuees who fought their way past Houston frequently posed the question: If citizens can't leave a city safely with advanced notice, how will the government respond to a terrorist attack?

Rita evacuees eagerly told their stories at a makeshift Red Cross relief center in Austin, Texas, as they waited for word on returning to Houston and the Gulf Coast. The shelter, housed in William B. Travis High School, took in busloads of those who fled the Hurricane's path.

"It was total chaos," said Mallory Hall, an 18-year old from Port Arthur whose grandfather drove her to Austin with her mother and aunt. "There was nothing to eat, no gas, no bathroom."

"It couldn't have been worse," said her aunt, Shannon Baird. They finally got 7 gallons of gas from a truck provided by the local government in Lufkin, Texas.

Families, including some with small children, went a day without eating. In many towns, no food, gas or electricity was available from stores that had already evacuated. Others abandoned all their possessions at the side of the road after running out of gas — and no fuel available for miles.

Ric Stoll is a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston. He evacuated Houston for Hurricane Rita and drove 17 hours to Austin, a trip that takes three hours in light traffic.

"There were obviously a number of problems, and it was a pretty miserable time for a lot of us," Stoll recalls. "For the evacuation of a major city, I believe that most citizens will have to rely on their own preparation. I assume the furthest away I can get is as far as I can go on one tank of gas."

Juliette Kayyem is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Kayyem says governments are learning from recent city-wide evacuations. But she argues that there's a lot of work to do if the government plans to be prepared for a large-scale terrorist attack.

"Imagine the levees broke in New Orleans because of strategically placed bombs," she says. "Do we have any sense, based on the last few weeks, that a massive evacuation could take place in that instance? The evidence suggests otherwise."

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