Galveston has an important lesson for Seattle

The last major hurricane to make a direct hit on Galveston Island and the Metropolitan Houston area struck on August 18, 1983. I remember it because I was living in Galveston at the time, working at the University of Texas Medical Branch and living in an apartment two blocks from the Seawall and the Gulf of Mexico. On weekends, I commuted to Houston, where my then-wife was going to graduate school. I still know folks down there. They're still without power, but safe. The images of destruction coming out of Southeast Texas, especially Galveston, last weekend broke my heart. I know those places on TV, many of which are now waterlogged rubble.

In 1983, during Hurricane Alicia, I evacuated to Houston and spent a long night hunkered down with my wife and a neighbor friend who was bedridden with a bad back. The storm wound up taking 22 lives, causing $2 billion in damage (in 1983 dollars), and leaving me with a profound respect for the havoc our planet can bring.

Alicia was bad. This time, a bullet was dodged when the worst of Ike's storm surge went east of Galveston and instead obliterated the sparsely populated Bolivar Peninsula. But Ike is still far, far worse than Alicia was. Early estimates are that the storm may well be the costliest in U.S. history (including Katrina). Some 4.5 million people lost electricity; many will remain without power for weeks. Lots of folks also have limited water. And though Galveston didn't get hit with the 25-foot wall of water forecasters feared, rescuers are still finding bodies.

I mention all this because one of the most notable aspects of this storm was the large number of people who refused to evacuate - even though the National Weather Service issued an unusually dire warning the previous day that those in the storm surge zones who lived in one- or two-story buildings faced "certain death." Over a third of the people living in those zones - some 100,000 fools - stayed behind anyway.

In 2005, just after the devastation of Katrina, nearly 100 percent of folks in Galveston, along with most of Houston, evacuated for Hurricane Rita. The evacuation turned into a gridlocked fiasco, and more people died from it than from the storm itself (which then veered east and mostly missed the area). The night Ike struck, listening to local Houston radio, caller after caller cited the Rita experience, and distrust of government (both its warnings and its ability to protect property), as the reason they chose to stay behind this time.

Which brings us to Seattle. We don't get hurricanes, but we are more than vulnerable to a major earthquake or the lesser chances of, say, a terrorist biological weapons attack or Mount Rainier erupting.

Evacuation from Seattle, with only three major roads out of the area (I-90 and I-5 north and south), any of which could be badly damaged in a big quake, is a serious issue. So is the probability that without the sobering local experience of a Katrina in mind to encourage compliance, a lot of people wouldn't leave. Plus, in a real-time event, you have folks who'd first want to get their kids from school or loved ones from work, folks who'd refuse to go without their pets, and the usual subset of people who fear looters more than a government warning of "certain death."

What is Seattle's disaster evacuation plan? Does anyone (outside a few planners at FEMA and City Hall and the King County Courthouse) even know? Would folks leave? What would you do?

Emergency planning for Seattle certainly exists, but public awareness of it is minimal. The last time weather seriously interfered with daily life in these parts - the massive windstorm that caused lengthy power outages two autumns ago - repair crews were overwhelmed, and employers, traffic planners, and the general public seemed clueless. In the Eastside, which had the most widespread outages, surface arterials were utterly gridlocked. And that was nothing more serious than some downed trees and darkened traffic signals. What happens if an earthquake topples buildings, buckles roads, damages bridges, and bursts water mains?

Because major earthquakes are rare here, a curious sense of denial seems to afflict almost everyone in the region, from public officials to ordinary households: a catastrophic event of this sort hasn't happened in Seattle in our lifetimes, therefore, it won't. But it will happen; the only question is when: Next century? Next week?

Taking a bit of time to review what you and your family would do in an emergency is well worth the effort. It could be you'll never need such plans. Or, you could need them tomorrow. Ask the folks in my old hometown.

Geov Parrish appears every other week in the Beacon Hill News & South District Journal. He may be reached at the addresses listed below.

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