Prepa­ra­tion proves key to suc­cess­ful Keys evac­u­a­tion

Mo­bi­liza­tion quicker than ex­pected

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Trevor Hughes and Arek Sarkissian

LARGO, FLA. Hur­ri­cane KEY Har­vey’s dev­as­ta­tion of Texas may have helped save lives on the Florida Keys when Irma hit be­cause tens of thou­sands of peo­ple mo­bi­lized for evac­u­a­tion far more quickly than ex­pected.

In­stead of a last-minute crush to leave the low-ly­ing Keys and south­east­ern Florida, many res­i­dents gassed up and hit the road days be­fore Irma first made land­fall, par­tic­i­pat­ing in one of the largest — and pos­si­bly the most suc­cess­ful — mass evac­u­a­tions in state his­tory.

Ex­perts cred­ited the news cov­er­age of Har­vey as it in­un­dated Texas, along with wide­spread ac­cess to com­puter mod­els that showed where the storm might hit and the po­ten­tial storm surge. A co­or­di­nated lo­cal-state-fed­eral mes­sage re­in­forced the dan­ger, spread widely by the news me­dia.

“Peo­ple were pre­par­ing even

Res­i­dents and lead­ers across Hous­ton and South­east Texas are in the midst of a mud-caked re­cov­ery from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey af­ter un­prece­dented floods and winds — from Katy to Or­ange to Rock­port — rav­aged the area.

Har­vey caused up to $160 bil­lion in dam­age, im­pact­ing more than 100,000 homes and mak­ing it one of the costli­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in U.S. his­tory. Pres­i­dent Trump ap­proved $15 bil­lion in dis­as­ter aid for Har­vey vic­tims last week.

Irma drew a lot of na­tional news me­dia at­ten­tion away from Texas, as it churned over Caribbean is­lands, sideswiped Cuba and rum­bled into Florida. But the fed­eral, state and lo­cal re­sponse to Har­vey won’t be slowed be­cause of Irma, said Nue­ces County Judge Loyd Neal, whose area in­cludes Port Aransas, a beach town that was one of the hard­est hit by Har­vey.

The close tim­ing of the dis­as­ters that hit Texas and Florida cre­ated a kin­ship be­tween first re­spon­ders in the two states. In one of sev­eral such in­stances, Florida dis­patched 100 game war­dens to Texas as the flood­wa­ters rose, and Texas re­sponded with 100 of their own game war­dens as Irma ap­proached, said state Rep. Dade Phe­lan.

“Hav­ing just gone through one of the most ex­pen­sive and cat­a­strophic storms that’s ever hit the U.S., we’re cer­tainly sym­pa­thetic” to Florida, he said.

Phe­lan said he is less con­cerned about pol­i­tics in­ter­fer­ing in the dis­tri­bu­tion of fed­eral aid to Texas and Florida — Florida, af­ter all, is an im­por­tant swing state in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, while Texas is re­li­ably Repub­li­can — and more wor­ried about the back-to-back dis­as­ters mak­ing re­build­ing sup­plies scarcer in the re­gion.

Area stores have re­ported short­ages of car­pets, tiles, cab­i­nets, ply­wood and other ma­te­ri­als needed to re­build homes, he said.

In Hous­ton, re­cov­ery has been a patch­work. Some res­i­dents are back at home and re­turn­ing to work, while oth­ers just re­turned to flood-ru­ined homes or are still in shel­ters, said Zakary Ro­driguez, a com­mu­nity ac­tivist.

The at­ten­tion shift from Texas to Florida will mostly af­fect those still strug­gling with re­cov­ery, in­clud­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants and fam­i­lies in shel­ters, he said. Zachary vol­un­teers at the shel­ter at the NRG Cen­ter in Hous­ton, which has housed sev­eral thou­sand evac­uees.

“At this point, if they’re not back in their home, they have no home to go to. They’re home­less. They’ve lost ev­ery­thing,” he said. “Those are the ones feel­ing most aban­doned.”


It was prop­erty not peo­ple that took a beat­ing in the Florida Keys be­cause res­i­dents got to safety be­fore Hur­ri­cane Irma hit.

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