Lessons Learned From Hurricane Ike, Underground Utilities

In October 2005, I wrote about our experience with Hurricane Rita. Unfortunately, it’s time to discuss another hurricane.

We first moved to the Gulf Coast area more than 21 years ago, to St. Tammany Parish, located 24 miles north of New Orleans across Lake Ponchartrain. Within a year, we experienced our first hurricane.

It was only a Category 1, but the eye passed directly over our home and we were rocked by winds of 75 miles per hour and heavy rain. We considered evacuating but local residents guffawed at that notion. “Son, ya don’t lose no sleep over a weak Category 1 and you sure don’t need to run from it,” explained an elderly co-worker. My family and I were still pretty impressed by the storm’s destructive power but local residents took it in stride.

To my dismay, I also learned that, statistically speaking, New Orleans and Houston were long overdue for a direct hit by a major storm. Nothing happened while we were in south Louisiana and even when we moved to Houston in 1992, major storms continued to miss both cities for several years.

Statistics finally caught up with New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region while Houston dodged a bullet when Hurricane Rita veered 100 miles east a few days later. In 2008, statistics caught up with the Houston/Galveston area as well.

While Hurricane Ike was classified as a strong Category 2, experts related that the destructive power of Ike was more akin to a Category 4. Ike was massive – the size of Texas itself. Combine that with the bowl-shaped topography of the Texas coast which concentrated the storm surge, and you had an incredibly dangerous storm.

But we still didn’t evacuate. Lessons learned from Katrina and Rita included recommending people who are not in storm surge areas to stay put and off the highways so those that legitimately need to evacuate can do so.

Underground utilities to the rescue

In my neighborhood on the west side of Houston (and over 50 miles from the coast), we only lost power for about 20 minutes during the 80 – 100 mph winds and torrential rains. We were literally an island of light in a sea of darkness. I could attribute that anomaly to clean living, but realistically it was due to underground utilities. Though virtually all of our friends in nearby subdivisions lost power initially, it was largely restored within 12 to 72 hours. In our part of town, most of the subdivisions are less than 25 years old. As is the national trend, all utilities – including telephone, power and cable – were installed underground. Once power is fully restored (at the time of this writing, over 1 million were still without power), I would love to see the statistics correlating restoration of electricity with underground versus overhead utility lines. Underground installation does, by no means, solve all the problems of power loss during natural disasters, but I have no doubt it minimizes damage and accelerates recovery.

But our woes in my part of town were minor compared to other areas. In Galveston, part of the island itself has literally disappeared – the “new” beach has moved substantially inland. The search goes on for idiot survivors (those that chose to ignore the “leave now or face death” warnings). The loss of life will inevitably continue to climb, but all things considered, it has been amazingly low. Sadly, there are still more than 50 people missing, mostly from Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula. Authorities suspect that many of those were simply swept out to sea.

In Houston, we had an orderly retreat and are having an orderly, cooperatively recovery. No major FEMA nightmares, no blaming the President and Congress for a natural disaster. Texans took the initiative and are simply dealing with the multitude of problems – and will continue to do so for as long as it takes.

We’re just taking care of our own. That is, perhaps, the most important lesson learned from the now infamous Hurricane Ike.

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