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Rita spotlights lingering weakness in emergency operations
Sat Sep 24 2005 12:14:19 ET

Bogged down by monstrous traffic jams and fuel shortages, the mass evacuation prompted by Hurricane Rita has highlighted lingering weaknesses in the US response to disasters.

Barely three weeks after tens of thousands of people were trapped in New Orleans for lack of transportation, Rita showed the evacuation of nearly three million people, most of them with cars, could also be a nightmare.

Indeed, more people have died so far in the confusing exodus than from the hurricane's fury itself: 24 elderly people were killed in an explosion on a fleeing bus and an aged woman died from heat exhaustion.

Houston Mayor Bill White expressed outrage Saturday at the lack of sufficient fuel supplies along the evacuation routes out of his city that were transformed into a bumper-to-bumper caravan of misery.

National Guardsmen were obliged to go car to car filling up the tanks of otherwise stranded evacuees so they could make it to shelters Thursday and Friday before Rita hit the US Gulf Coast early Saturday.

Many Houston residents were forced to abandon their cars after running out of gasoline. Some families were scattered around Texas, searching for gasoline, food or medical care.

"It was just totally unacceptable that there was not adequate fuel supplies stashed around the state," White told reporters. "That is a part of the state plan that is going to need improvement."

The authorities have also come under fire for waiting too long to make the highways one-way outgoing, thus snarling traffic and forcing some families to spend more than 24 hours in their cars in the broiling heat.

But David Paulison, who took over as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after the Katrina debacle, defended the evacuation even if he said it was "a little rough around the edges."

"The state did the right thing and the local officials did the right thing and the people, the residents, paid attention and left like they were supposed to do," Paulison told CNN.

"I'm sure Texas will go back and look at what went real well and what went rough and fix some of those things. But moving out of harm's way was absolutely the right thing to do."

The US press had harsh words for the authorities' response to the latest natural disaster to strike the already battered southern US coast.

The Washington Post said what had first looked like a carefully planned evacuation deteriorated "into a nightmare for many people who had obeyed orders and evacuated when they were asked to do so."

The New York Times was unsparing in its criticism.


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