There's a big difference between the mood of the Gulf Coast hurricane preparation conference a year ago and the one held last month. According to Beaumont Mayor Guy Goodson, that difference is summed in two words: Katrina and Rita.
Mr. Goodson was there last year when state and county officials convened to go over disaster plans and evacuation routes prior to the 2005 hurricane season. "Last year it was sort of like being a college student," Mr. Goodson said. "We didn't have the firsthand experience, so it was a lot of cerebral information."
But what a difference a year can make. In the months since Hurricane Rita followed Katrina ashore on Sept. 24, causing massive damage in Beaumont and across the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts, Mr. Goodson has traveled to Denver; Charlotte; Boston; Portland, Ore.; and Charleston, S.C., to talk about how his city responded to a Category 3 storm in a banner year of hurricanes.
So when time came for community leaders and state disaster-relief planners to meet in Beaumont to discuss preparations for the 2006 season-which officially begins this month-Mr. Goodson said the mood was different. "This year, we're all a bunch of jaded veterans. It's not academic anymore. We're focused on the specifics," he said.
Halfway through what climatologists call a 20-year busy cycle for hurricanes, experts say it's unlikely 2006 will see as many massive storms as the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season. Even so, forecasters predict a season with 13-16 named storms, 8-10 hurricanes, and 4-6 major hurricanes peaking sometime between August and October. Last year there were 15 hurricanes and seven storms that reached Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. In light of a 2005 Atlantic hurricane season that claimed 2,280 lives and caused well over $100 billion in damages, disaster groups from the top down-at federal, state, local, and private levels-are rethinking how to prepare for the storms.
When other mayors and disaster planners ask him for advice, Mr. Goodson says he has one major instruction: "Simply stated, you can't count on the state government or federal government to be there directly after a disaster," Mr. Goodson said. "Communities need to save money and have a rainy-day fund."
Last September when Hurricane Rita pounded Beaumont, Mr. Goodson and his city's team of first responders took control from their high-rise command center rather than waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to ride in on a white horse. "People are told that after a major disaster, you need to plan to be on your own for the first 48 to 72 hours. We say that's not long enough. You really need to plan to be on your own for at least five days."
Officials at FEMA, whose management of the Katrina aftermath became a public-relations debacle, say they have new things in store for 2006 also. The federal agency plans to:
•Smooth coordination between the agency and the Department of Defense by placing military liaisons in each of FEMA's 10 regional offices as well as updating communications hardware and computer software in those offices.
•Focus on keeping lines of communication open by rolling in more satellite phones, mobile radios, and portable cell service trucks in the aftermath of a major storm.
•Employ modern logistics technology to track trailers and supplies with bar codes and scanners.
•Expand the on-hand supplies waiting for deployment in the scattered FEMA warehouses.
Rick Hazlett, FEMA logistics chief for the agency's Ft. Worth warehouses, sees a new level of preparedness firsthand. All he has to do is look up. Mr. Hazlett's seven warehouses are packed to the ceiling with bottled water, food, hygiene kits, tents, pillows, blankets, portable toilets, generators, and other gear just waiting to be shipped to the site of a disaster.
Last year at this time, Mr. Hazlett had about 500,000 square feet of storage space. This year: "We've expanded to 1.6 million square feet and we're using it all." His staff is larger, too. Last year, he went into hurricane season with a dozen employees. This year, he has close to 80.
Is it enough? "I've got a larger stock now. We can load them faster, up until the [supply] runs out," Mr. Hazlett said. "It depends on the disasters. Like last year, you get that many hurricanes together one right after another-that's overwhelming for anybody."
Beaumont Mayor Goodson also fields requests from everyday travelers. One recent e-mail came from a woman who had visited Beaumont and said "she loved the downtown entertainment district, she liked the people, but she thought the community basically looked unkempt. She said she realized we had a hurricane. She just thought the evidence of that would be gone by now," he said. The mayor said he could only respond by saying "we appreciate her candor and that we agree. We've still got a lot of work to do."
Beaumont, like hundreds of other Gulf Coast communities ravaged by last year's dual storms, remains festooned with what Mr. Goodson called "blue roofs" (roofs still made from blue tarp). And the trash piles? After trash crews worked for eight months hauling away tons of bulk trash on six- and seven-day shifts, Mr. Goodson says the city still has about 150,000 cubic yards of trash to pick up. In a normal year, the whole city creates just 210,000 cubic yards of trash.
Nearly nine months after Katrina, more than half of New Orleans still hasn't come home and perhaps never will. It's a sign that despite monumental efforts to pick up and repair, Gulf Coast residents ravaged by Katrina and Rita could soon face a two-front battle: finishing up the repairs while keeping an eye on the Gulf to see what's spinning toward them.
Named storms: 13-16
Category 3+ hurricanes: 4-6