|Logan Hawkes - Lost Planet Media Services -- Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) electronic highway signs along coastal highways and Interstates this month are carrying a message to coastal residents and visitors that the peak hurricane season is quickly approaching and that everyone should be prepared to move to higher ground on short notice.
The reminder comes in the wake of disastrous evacuation experiences around New Orleans and Houston last year as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita approached the Gulf coast late in the 2005 tropical season.
A vast, traffic-snarled exodus from Houston and the upper Texas Gulf Coast last September caused thousands of people to be stuck in their cars, with many running out of gas and sweltering on roadsides in 100-degree heat as they waited for authorities to bring them fuel. Authorities speculate that if Rita had made direct landfall over the Houston area, thousands could have perished.
Electronic signs from Galveston to South Padre Island are warning motorists to keep their gas tanks full, indicating they should be prepared to evacuate the area in the event serious storms plague the Texas coastline this season.
So far the summer has failed to live up to the forecast for an active tropical season. But meteorologists warn that August and September are the busiest months for devastating Texas hurricanes and that the season is far from being over. Dr. Steve Lyons of the Weather Channel, hurricane analyst and a Texan, warns, "we're just getting started."
Since last year's active season, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has stepped up efforts by the state to work with local governments in preparing for hurricane disasters. The Governor's Emergency Preparedness Office has been conducting a number of public meetings and seminars for local officials in an effort to avoid evacuation problems like those experienced in New Orleans last year.
Of particular concern are the areas surrounding the densely populated Houston Metroplex. With the possibility of nearly four-plus million evacuees filtering in and through Houston highways, officials have indicated traffic and fuel problems could be a major stumbling block to efficient evacuation plans.
Also of concern is the Rio Grande Valley where the region's 2.4 million residents could be joined by more than three million Mexican nationals fleeing the border area in search of shelter and safe harbor. The isolated southern reaches of the state have limited major highway access that could prove troublesome combined with the additional problems of customs/border patrol screening checkpoints along evacuation routes.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has opposed closing the highway checkpoints and U.S.-Mexico border crossing stations in order to allow pass-through access to evacuees. They site national security concerns heightened by incidents of world terrorism, and the possibility that terrorist organizations could take advantage of crisis situations to smuggle in illegal and potential dangerous cargo, as reasons for their position.
So far this year along the Texas coast it's been business as usual with increased numbers of summer tourists being reported in most areas. But as always, coastal residents report they are confident they can face the potential danger if a developing storm should approach. How they would respond and how quickly, they say, would depend upon the storm. In the meantime, most say they are heeding the warnings on the new electronic signs, but report they didn't really need to be reminded. On the Texas coast, serious hurricanes are more than a potential threat. They are a way of life.