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Texas weighs worst case

Texas - still with the largest influx of Hurricane Katrina survivors - could be facing its own Category 3 hurricane next week.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIM0RE | September 19, 2005

"There's already so much anxiety."

—Rev. G. Todd Williams

Texas - still with the largest influx of Hurricane Katrina survivors - could be facing its own Category 3 hurricane next week.

On Monday, a five-day track offered by the National Hurricane Center put landfall very close to Houston, though forecasters emphasized that uncertainty is high, and the storm could make landfall anywhere from Mexico to the Florida Panhandle.

Still, people in Houston and elsewhere are weighing worst-case scenarios and talking about storm preparations, said the Rev. G. Todd Williams, pastor at New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston. "That's the big question we've got right now."

"Galveston's emergency management has already gone into action this morning," he said. "Already they have 80 school buses ready to remove people from the island. The convention center in Houston is nearly empty of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. They could reopen that."

But not if the storm hits Houston. "If it's a Category 3 storm, all the coastline communities have to evacuate," he said. "If Hurricane Katrina had hit Texas near the Houston area, the wave would have reached 30 miles inland. We are flat and we're only 22 feet above sea level. It's a huge issue."

Houston has a citywide evacuation plan in place but, like residents in New Orleans, many Houston residents don't have cars. "Most of my neighbors don't have cars," said Williams.

Whether Rita hits Houston or not, the psychological damage is being done, he added. "There's already so much anxiety. But at the same time, we have deal with the reality of what we will do. People are already looking at options. They're not going to wait until later in the week."

It's not easy for responders and caregivers to stomach the thought of a new storm, either he admitted: "Frankly, I'm just bummed."

San Antonio is ready to take in evacuees from Houston if need be, said Don Jones, volunteer disaster recovery coordinator for the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. "They will evacuate folks to Dallas, or to Fort Worth or San Antonio. I think they've got enough public transportation and buses."

San Antonio is currently home to 4,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees - down from 13,000.

Jones said it seems like simple common sense that people shouldn't be temporarily housed in hurricane-vulnerable areas in the first place. "Originally some people were talking about sending hurricane evacuees to Corpus Christi," he said. "I asked them to remember that we still have the rest of hurricane season to get through."

Like Williams, Jones said the emotional strain grows when a second disaster of any size follows one as large as Hurricane Katrina. "One lady up in North Carolina, when she was looking at Ophelia last week, she was talking about the stress and the fear of seeing the rains come."

Yet in some communities, memories of past disasters have motivated people to respond to Hurricane Katrina. "Just as countless people responded generously to the needs of those ravaged by the 1993 catastrophic floods in the Midwest, so we are now called to respond to the needs of others afflicted elsewhere," said the Rev. Dr. Robert Lee Hill at the Community Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri.

Hill's church - in partnership with Village Presbyterian Church, St. James United Methodist Church, and other area congregations - welcomed 100 evacuees from the Houston Astrodome.

Many caregivers report they're too busy responding to Hurricane Katrina to worry about a second disaster.

But further west, in Washington state - the state with the second highest risk for earthquakes in the U.S. - Eric Holdeman, director of the King County emergency management, worries about whether resources will be available to deal with another disaster.

"Last time I talked to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Region 10, over a week ago, they had 60 percent of people deployed. Another disaster would strip the region down to bare bones. And the A-team is gone already. We are stretched thin."

Holdeman said he believes emergency management officials will think more conservatively about activating emergency operations sooner rather than later. "You can never activate your emergency operations center too soon - an ounce of prevention," he said.

Now there are small communities still not getting the resources they need, he said. "In the small communities that got hit by Katrina - they're still saying 'nobody is here.' "

Holdeman said he believes over-focusing on homeland security for the last four years weakened response to Katrina. "There were depleted resources, depleted talent, and a four-year concentration on homeland security. But also, from a common-sense perspective, the scale and scope of Katrina is huge. Even four years ago, response to this was not going to be a cakewalk."

Holdeman believes there needs to be a congressional action to reestablish the Federal Emergency Management Agency as an independent federal agency separate from the Department of Homeland Security, "a cabinet-level" agency "with a trained and experienced emergency manager as the director," he said. "This was a plain failure of the system. We were not ready for a catastrophic disaster."

Holdeman, a 20-year military veteran, is not only concerned about disasters but about national resources in general. "What if we have another second military crisis somewhere? It's a huge problem."

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