Harvey's speed leaves many in harm's way

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Sept. 23, 2017 at 9:06 p.m.
Updated Sept. 25, 2017 at 1 a.m.

A group of game wardens from across Texas who came to assist in relief efforts sit in Woodsboro's Federal Emergency Management Agency dome Aug. 26. Refugio officials did not offer the dome as a shelter to residents Aug. 25, the day of Hurricane Harvey's landfall.

A group of game wardens from across Texas who came to assist in relief efforts sit in Woodsboro's Federal Emergency Management Agency dome Aug. 26. Refugio officials did not offer the dome as a shelter to residents Aug. 25, the day of Hurricane Harvey's landfall.   Olivia Vanni for The Victoria Advocate

Refugio grandmother Lamar Rodriguez, 51, didn't understand why she and her neighbors were not allowed into the storm-resistant dome in Woodsboro.

"Why are the citizens not getting proper help?" she asked.

Rodriguez would have made the about 15-minute drive to the dome to escape Hurricane Harvey's wrath during landfall, she said. But with limited finances and few family members able to help, she instead weathered the storm in a neighbor's home, where she spent the night trying to keep her two grandchildren calm. That proved a difficult task, she said, when powerful winds and heavy rains began to disintegrate the home as she and others sheltered inside.

"Pieces of the living room fell. Pieces of the kitchen fell - from the inside," she said. "The shingles flew off. The rain came through, and the fiberglass fell in."

As Crossroads emergency management officials urged residents to leave, some living in the path of Harvey found themselves trapped in their own homes and communities, unable to reach safety. Although hurricanes are hardly new to the Coastal Bend, some officials said Harvey's rapid strengthening foiled plans for evacuating the Crossroads' most vulnerable residents.

Harvey arrived on the Refugio County coast about 10 p.m. Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds powerful enough to disable meteorologists' wind-measuring instruments before they could record its highest wind speeds, according to the National Weather Service.

Less than 24 hours before, meteorologists rated Harvey as a Category 1 hurricane, which many Crossroads residents believe can be managed by sheltering in place.

According to a National Weather Service summary of Harvey, meteorologists thought the hurricane would make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm. In contrast, meteorologists measured Hurricane Irma at Category 5 strength about five days before its arrival in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane.

Under the dome

Refugio County's emergency management coordinator, Stan Upton, said his office could have bused residents to safety if not for the lack of time resulting from Harvey's unprecedented intensification.

"The timeline on this particular storm did not give us that opportunity to execute the plan," he said.

Limits on time also prevented the dissemination of shelter and evacuation information through local media, forcing some county offices to rely on Facebook, he said.

At Joy Ministries, a Refugio church that served as the county's only shelter on the night of landfall, about 20 people - some with walkers and wheelchairs - sought safety, said Peter Vega, missions coordinator.

Harvey's winds, which ripped boards fastened with 3-inch screws from the windows of the church, were powerful enough to give Vega cause for worry for those Refugio County residents who sheltered in their homes.

Although Upton said he could only guess at how many did not follow the evacuation order, Vega acknowledged many residents could not leave. Others, he said, probably chose to stay home despite the danger.

"It's like trying to get your grandma out of the house," Vega said. "This is their city. This is their county."

For Rodriguez the choice was simple, she said. She did not have the money to pay for transportation and feared burdening out-of-county family members with her presence.

Rodriguez said she had no knowledge of Joy Ministries or any other available shelters in Refugio County before and during Harvey's arrival.

About 5 miles south of Rodriguez's home, a hurricane-resistant dome owned by the Woodsboro Independent School District and funded by a $1.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant remained off-limits to residents seeking shelter Aug. 25. A 2005 voter-approved bond paid for the remainder of the dome's about $2.3 million construction costs.

Instead, the 19,000-square-foot dome, which can withstand wind speeds up to 325 mph, served as a shelter and staging ground for first responders and rescuers. While residents were advised they could not stay there, Upton said, officials did not turn away anyone seeking shelter during the storm.

"That is the prudent use of it. That's what it was designed for," Upton said.

Rodriguez saw things differently.

"This is ridiculous," she said.

But Upton said his office was exploring the possibility of using two smaller school district domes to shelter residents during future storms.

"We want to keep people as safe as possible," he said.

Tried to find shelter

When Raymond Guzman, 35, boarded a shelter-bound bus in Victoria days after Harvey, he breathed a sigh of relief.

But what he thought might be a three-hour ride turned into a 12-hour test of endurance. None of the bus' passengers, including him and his 63-year-old, disabled mother, he said, were allowed off the bus until its arrival in Austin.

"It was excruciating and painful," he said.

Recalling his experiences during hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Guzman began calling authorities, 2-1-1 and the Victoria Office of Emergency Management several days before Harvey to schedule a ride for himself and his mother to a Victoria shelter of last resort. He was unsuccessful.

"They said we would have to find our own ride," Guzman said.

As a result, Guzman and his mother, who do not have a vehicle, were forced to ride out Harvey in their mobile home. That experience would have been terrifying, Guzman said, if not for his faith in God. Although straps held down their home, winds nevertheless rocked the structure, ripped large portions of the roof and tore large holes clear through their walls - all while they remained inside.

"I feel blessed by God that we are alive," he said.

Richard McBrayer, Victoria emergency management coordinator, said Victoria's fleet of public transit buses did take residents to the domes. OC Garza, city of Victoria communications director, said Guzman should have called an available emergency hotline at 361-580-5796.

Guzman said he had no knowledge about the hotline number, and those he called did not refer him to it.

After the hurricane, a next-door neighbor took Guzman and his mother to the St. Joseph High School dome, he said.

But soon after their arrival Aug. 27, they learned emergency planners were busing all of the dome's occupants to more permanent shelters farther inland.

Guzman, his mother and other passengers then endured a tortuous bus trip he described as "very disorganized." Outside Bloomington, the buses crawled in reverse at walking speed along a flooding, darkened gravel road for about an hour after one vehicle became stuck in a muddy shoulder. On their way to Austin shelters, flooded roads stymied the group, forcing them to re-route to San Antonio, where they found only at-capacity shelters.

Finally, they set out again for Austin, where they finally found a shelter where they could stay.

While McBrayer regretted passengers' plight, he said, state officials were responsible for organizing that transportation.

But as with difficulties experienced in Refugio County, the trouble could have been avoided if Harvey had not arrived so quickly and unexpectedly, he said.

For example, Victoria County could have made use of local school buses, a resource Calhoun County officials successfully organized. McBrayer said he doubted Victoria County bus drivers would have gotten lost near Bloomington, as their state counterparts did.

But McBrayer said emergency planners can prepare only so much before disaster strikes.

"You plan for the best ... (but) do things change? Yes, they do," he said.

For example, he said, the FEMA-funded domes at St. Joseph High School and Bloomington ISD were never intended to shelter significant portions of the county's population. Each, he said, has space for about 300 to 400 residents during short-term disasters.

Officials were left with no choice but to open the domes after realizing Harvey would bring powerful winds rather than heavy rains to the Crossroads, said Precinct 1 County Commissioner Danny Garcia.

"We had all these people who had to go somewhere," he said.

But McBrayer said in the event of a future hurricane with even more powerful wind and faster onset, the county would have few options and likely would rely on sending residents out of the region to safety.

"That is a very difficult question to answer," he said of what would happen if another fast-developing hurricane approached Victoria.

Florida changes approach

Taking a lesson from Hurricane Andrew, which ravaged Florida in 1992, emergency planners took a new perspective on sheltering and evacuation. They decided to increase residents' options.

"There are two main strategies for reducing exposure to hurricane hazards: evacuation and sheltering," Marc Levitan, director of the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said in a Houston Chronicle 2007 article.

From 1999 to 2006, Florida officials spent about $75 million to make public buildings compliant with new hurricane building codes and ordered all new public structures to be able to withstand hurricane-force winds.

They also sought to create enough shelters just outside storm-affected areas to protect all of the state's coastal residents during landfalls.

"We think it's critical that we provide these kinds of spaces nearby to where people live," David Halstead, deputy director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, told the Chronicle. "We want people to evacuate tens of miles, not hundreds."

In Broward County during Hurricane Irma, authorities coordinated the opening of 43 shelters to protect residents during landfall - enough space for about 33,000 people. And Miami-Dade County opened at least 20 shelters for landfall, according to the Miami Herald.

Emergency planners in Sarasota County in West Florida said they prepared for the worst through special contingency plans known as Department Disaster Preparedness Plans.

"The minute we are in the cone (of potential hurricane landfall), we start notifying our departments," said Ed McCrane, Sarasota County's emergency management chief.

In contrast, Victoria activated its emergency management office on the eve of Harvey's landfall, said Mayor Paul Polasek, who also estimated only about 30 percent of city residents evacuated.

"The policy committee quickly made the decision to put the mandatory evacuation order in place. We also immediately made multiple requests for resources to the state, which were difficult for them to act on quickly," he said.

But in Sarasota County, important planning and contingencies are hammered out before hurricane season.

During times of fair weather, emergency planners work with each county department from parks and recreation to public transportation to develop and perfect a series of detailed checklists. Anything and everything departments will or may need to accomplish are included in the checklists, from minor tasks such as dismantling lifeguard towers to phoning at-risk residents about their needs.

Those pre-laid plans facilitate the creation of shelters and provision of bus evacuations, he said.

Despite the potential for a hurricane to veer away, the Sarasota County plan provides for the worst-possible scenario.

"There have been times we have gone through that process and ceased it at 72 hours," McCrane said.

Compassionate evacuation

Victoria architect Rawley McCoy thinks an order of a "mandatory evacuation" is not only unrealistic but also unfair.

"Do you seriously think all 60 (thousand) or 70,000 (people) of Victoria are going to leave? It's not even feasible," McCoy said. "Although it sounds great, it's ridiculous."

Although McCoy said he was not certain what a better evacuation or shelter plan would entail, planners should start by considering the plight of the county's most disadvantaged residents - not those who already have access to the internet, vehicles and disposable incomes.

"It's rather disingenuous to say, 'Why didn't they leave?'" he said. "'Why didn't you give them a way to leave?'"

And the first step in making a plan that does provide evacuation means for residents with limited resources is admitting mistakes.

"In situations like this, people tend to become defensive and play the blame game," he said. "People need to learn from this to have an honest discussion."

Guzman agreed with that view. Looking back on the difficulties experienced by himself, his mother and other residents during and after Harvey, he said, he hoped emergency officials would make changes.

"We are all human. We all make errors," he said, but "I just feel like it could have been handled a little bit better."

Related coverage

Day 1: Here comes Harvey

Day 2: Brace yourself

Day 3: 'Prayers protect us'

Day 4: 'We thought we were going to die'

Day 5: 'At least God let us live'

Day 6: 'It's the luck of the draw'

Day 7: 'Everybody will pull together'

Day 8: Guadalupe floods parts of Victoria

Day 9: Texas Zoo evacuates animals (w/video)

Day 10: The Long Road Ahead (w/video)

Day 11: Residents rely on families to rebuild

Day 12: For some, normal still far away

Day 13: Church offers refuge for devastated town

Day 14: Victims find hardship, opportunity (w/video)

Day 15: FEMA frustrates Harvey victims

Day 16: Displaced and in disarray

Day 17: Disaster for humans means catastrophe for pets

Day 18: Nature interrupted (w/video)

Day 19: 'It was like we had been bombed'

Day 20: Students returning to school feel weight of Harvey

Day 21: International Crane Foundation loses office after hurricane

Day 22: Ranching structures, cotton mostly damaged by Harvey

Day 23: Port Lavaca struggles back after Harvey

Day 24: Refugio: 'We're trying to get back to normal'

Day 25: Nonprofit leaves people lost after Harvey

Day 26: 'We are human beings like everyone else'

Day 27: Refugio schools find way to reopen

Day 28: Bloomington schools begin year in different classroom setups

Day 29: Methodist church serves those in need after hurricane

Day 30: Scientists measure damage to endangered species' habitat (w/video)

Day 31: Medical community feels impact of Harvey

Helpful information

Where to get water, gas and other supplies

Helpful information after the storm

Updates on city services

Additional coverage

Can the Texas Zoo escape extinction?

Harvey delays new Head Start services

Advice on livestock safety, care after Harvey

SBDC services help business owners reopen

Refugio faces adversity of different kind but prevails

Superintendent's column: Bond encompasses 30 projects across VISD


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