Surviving Rita

I had the pleasure of seeing my city safely above sea level on Saturday morning. And that is no minor achievement. Hurricane Rita was very serious, and it was only by the grace of God it did not do more damage to more people. This is cold comfort to residents of Port Arthur and Lake Charles, no doubt, but at least the looting and loss of life we saw in New Orleans was prevented by vigilant local authorities and provident citizens. The Hurricane’s impact to Texas and New Orleans will be manageable.

The whole Rita experience revealed a number of interesting things. First, Houston is much better governed than neighboring Louisiana. Emergency managers, police, and others had a fairly detailed plan that they stuck to when the Hurricane came near. This was not something concocted in the two weeks since Katrina struck; it was a well thought out response to the disaster of Tropical Storm Allison several years ago. Both Mayor White and Judge Echols, as well as Governor Perry, exuded authority, alertness, bearing, and competence. They mostly did not drop the ball and were not quick to blame their mistakes on others. Things weren't perfect, but as conservatives, we don't expect perfection from government, and certainly not in the face of the largest evacuation of the fourth largest city in America.

Second, Houstonians themselves rose to the challenge. I spent 14 hours in an unsuccessful attempt to flee to Dallas, which I aborted as news became better, and I became more and more hopeless about my lack of progress--10 miles in six hours on Thursday afternoon. Traffic crawled at a snail's pace. At one point, I searched in desperation for gas for three hours in the North Houston suburbs until I finally came upon a functioning station. Rumors abounded about a mythical Diamond Shamrock or Citgo just up the next road. Even so, people were calm, polite, helpful, encouraging, and remarkably well behaved, both on and off the highways. I hardly heard a single horn honk. One might think that is because 75% or more of these people were probably armed. But it went beyond fear of confrontation. Individuals from Tomball and North Houston came out of their homes to hand out water to those driving past. People shared intelligence, maps, and other tips to their fellow Houstonians, especially those searching for gas. I was really impressed. I can't imagine residents of very many other cities in the U.S. that would be so cheerful and well behaved under the same circumstances.

Third, as I said in my initial post on Katrina, "There are trade-offs in every policy decision. If huge numbers of military and civilian personnel were mobilized in a levee en masse for every 'what if' scenario, we'd soon bankrupt ourselves. " The clogging of Houston's highways by comparatively safe individuals from North Houston and beyond made it difficult for those from Galveston and the coast to escape to safety. Gas was soon unavailable and the handful of streets out of the city were packed and soon immobile. I don't think there was an easy solution to this challenge. But it shows what happens when a city eager to avoid the mistakes of Katrina commits itself to a wholly different set of problems. Our elderly and car-less were able to be transported, particularly from Galveston, but those of us with cars were impeded by the mass push outward, in many cases by individuals that could have and should have stayed. Obviously gas should have been trucked in in advance, roads should have been converted to contra-flow earlier, and perhaps some kind of lottery system should be imposed for the future to decide who gets to leave and when. The whole episode certainly exposed the near-impossibility of evacuating a major U.S. city in a hurry. There should be a strong bias for "sheltering in place" in response to natural and man-made disasters in the future, both among individuals and in directives given by the authorities.

Four, I think that Rita and other disasters reveal the limitations of markets. Markets work great most of the time, but they do not respond immediately, and they especially do not respond well to disasters and the like to supply much-needed supplies. Good government planning is needed in these cases, and it was not completely up to the task here. In other words, markets and government depend on one another to work well. Without government, the sinews of the market, contract and property rights as wel as basic order, would not be secure. Companies in Houston could not reliably contract for gasoline and other supplies from out of state; they could easily get jipped. And markets are probably not the best tool to quickly and immediately get hundreds of gasoline tankers trucked into Houston. (Yes, I know, markets are distorted here because of public roads, anti-gouging laws, and the rest. The point still stands, though a well thought out balance of more fluid markets and government initiatives are probably the solution).

Ultimately, I watched the news and went to bed on Friday, and I could hardly hear the wind outside. You would not have known there was a hurricane passing by, but for the news. I woke up on Saturday and took a recon of the neighborhood. Hardly any damage, but lots of people out and about, most eager to swap stories. I headed to the local pub, which was open every day of the storm. Everything else was closed, but there was a palpable, collective feeling of relief and community among Houstonians in the storm's aftermath.

Posted by at September 27, 2005 9:43 PM