By KRISTEN MACK
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Half of Houston-area residents fled Hurricane Rita as it approached last month, and almost two-thirds would evacuate next time a major storm threatened, according to a Houston Chronicle/KHOU-TV Channel 11 poll.
If a Category 4 hurricane had a bead on Houston, 62 percent would leave — a slightly higher percentage than actually did flee ahead of Rita, according to the poll.
When evacuations were ordered or recommended beginning Sept. 21, Rita was forecast to come ashore near Galveston as a Category 4. The resulting exodus caused unprecedented traffic jams.
"You would have thought that people who had spent more than 10 hours on the road, would say, 'This is crazy, I won't do it again,' " said Bob Stein of Rice University, who conducted the poll along with Richard Murray of the University of Houston. "When the hurricane doesn't hit and doesn't do a lot of damage, people reconsider evacuating. But people don't have any regrets."
The poll is consistent with official estimates that about 2.5 million people left the area, Stein said.
About 70 percent of those who left were afraid of the storm — fearing for their safety from wind and flooding — as Rita seemed poised for a near-direct hit. Only one in five listed evacuation orders as the primary motivation for taking flight, according to the poll of residents in Harris and seven adjacent counties.
The eye of the storm instead struck Sept. 24 near the Texas-Louisiana border, bringing misery to that area but largely sparing metropolitan Houston.
People who lived in low-lying coastal areas in which voluntary or mandatory evacuations were called for were more likely to leave, which Stein said is consistent with research into prior evacuations.
Sixty-two percent of people living in Rita evacuation areas left, compared with 42 percent not living in those areas.
But Stein said his analysis of poll responses showed that people who left non-evacuation zones feared the hurricane's effects slightly more than those who left more vulnerable areas.
"If you were in an evacuation zone you accept that risk and don't assess it as very high," he said. People who live in Galveston, for example, may accept higher risks in exchange for enjoying the island city's seaside amenities.
Forecast sparks flight
Officials requested residents in storm surge areas to leave their homes on Wednesday, Sept. 21. About a third who evacuated heeded the warning then and hit the road.
That evening's forecast, the most ominous of the week, brought a larger response: More than half who evacuated left Thursday.
Almost half of the evacuees said they stayed in caravans of more than one car, a factor that likely contributed to the traffic congestion. Thirty percent who said they left with three companions or fewer — a group that could have fit into most cars — left in multiple vehicles, according to the poll.
"People in the most vulnerable areas clearly anticipated their cars, like their homes, would be at risk," Stein said. "It's suggestive of people taking their cars, not because they had a lot of people to protect, but because they were taking their second-most valuable possession."
Half of the evacuees headed for small towns in Texas. Dallas and Austin were the next-most popular destinations.
Nearly one in 10 evacuees, perhaps frustrated by slow-moving traffic or fearful they would run out of gas, returned home.
Just over half completed their trips — to another destination or back home — in less than 10 hours. But 21 percent spent 20 hours or more on the road.
Though the hardship was great, Maria Torres, 41, one of the poll respondents, believes she made the right decision when she evacuated Houston.
"We already saw what happened in Louisiana and New Orleans and it showed that it was going to be worse than that when it was in the news," she said, referring to Hurricane Katrina's devastation of Louisiana and the possibility of similar havoc from Rita.
What Torres didn't expect was that it would take her family 21 hours to drive to Buffalo in Leon County, a trip that usually takes three hours.
She was running short on gas and food by time she arrived in Conroe. But her only choice was to continue because she was unable to find gas, hotel rooms or food there. She tried to find a shelter, but they were all full.
If she perceives a threat like Rita again, she'll leave again, Torres said, but earlier.
Made the right move
Margaret Nerbonne, 49, another poll respondent, didn't have as far to go as Torres, just 40 miles or so to a friend's home.
"We went up to some friends' house in Cypress because we kept hearing the mayor saying if you live in this ZIP code — and we lived in one of them — you should leave," she said.
Nerbonne didn't endure many of the hardships others suffered when they fled. But she would do it again if another storm packing the fury of Rita threatened Houston.
She said she was more concerned with the large trees near her home falling on top of her house or through her windows.
"It would be foolish to think we weren't going to get hit," Nerbonne said. "Looking back on it — you hate to second guess it too much — had it hit with the full force of the hurricane you probably would have had some of these big trees fall."
Three-fourths who evacuated planned to stay with family and friends. More than half who left said they spent more than $200 on gas and provisions.
Another 20 percent were turned off by the idea of getting in traffic.
Nearly 70 percent of people rated the local government's response in general as excellent or good.
Rita struck less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, and the fresh memory of that probably influenced the reaction, Stein said.
I have to believe the sensitivity and behavior was attributed to Katrina in some way," Stein said. "Had Katrina happened six months ago, I'm not sure you would have had the same effect. People would have forgotten and rationalized."
Chronicle reporter Armando Villafranca contributed to this report.