LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - It's been 10 years since Hurricane Rita prepared to make landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast and in that time first responders believe the Pineywoods leaders have improved their handling of disasters.
When Hurrican Rita made landfall between Galveston Island and the Beaumont area on Sept. 24, 2005, it became the fourth most intense Hurricane ever recorded to come out of the Atlantic ocean. It was the fifth major Hurricane of the season and came only a month after Katrina crippled New Orleans. The damage from the storm is estimates at nearly $12 billion. The first place of refuge for many of the evacuees from the Gulf Coast was the Lufkin and Nacogdoches areas.
"We were a little prepared," Tara Triana with the Nacogdoches County Office of Emergency Management said. "We had a practice run you would say. We just got done dealing with Katrina evacuees, so we still had many of the federal workers and volunteers in place.
The main surge of those entering the area came up from Houston on Highway p59 and Highway 69 from Beaumont. The influx of cars caused traffic back ups and gas shortages along the route.
"We had traffic coming in from Beaumont," Angelina County Sheriff Capt. Alton Lenderman said. "We had people coming in from Houston. So we had major areas they were coming in from. The Denman Avenue and loop intersection had a big congestion problem as well as South First st. We had to do a lot of switch up to get the traffic running smoothly."
Current Nacogdoches Fire Chief Keith kiplinger was working for the city of Dickenson at the time. His department was in the original evacuation zone for the storm.
"We first thought it would hit Galveston and head right towards us, so we had to get everyone evacuated and I stayed behind with my men," Kiplinger said. "We had a ghost town on our hands for about three days. We realized how hard it was to evacuate major cities. We realized how much of a challenge it was and how much of a head start we needed to get."
Kiplinger said in the years that have followed the departments now look at the storm further out than they did to make sure everything is as ready as they can be. Both Nacogdoches and Angelina Counties have begun to work with the health departments and Red Cross to open more shelters and make sure volunteers are ready.
"After Rita, we knew we needed something bigger to help out as a central staging area," Triana said. "Then Ike hit and with federal money we got we were able to update the Expo Center to handle the evacuees that may travel here or have to abandon their homes in the area."
The local governments have also become closer with the state in Austin and agreements worked out with oil companies to make sure stranded vehicles are a thing of the past.
"We have fueling stations along the 59 route," Angelina County Judge Wes Suiter said. "We have buses that have to be refueled so that takes a load off of the gas stations that can handle the private cars. We are in close talks in these situations and it is a good relationship to have."
Lenderman believes recent upgrades to the highway and the proposed Interstate 69 route should also make the area better prepared for another Rita.
"There were a lot of lessons learned and I think we are a lot better prepared now," Lenderman said. [With] manpower wise and equipment wise."
"Before the storm, the city and county acted separate and did their own thing," Triana said. "Since then we have started working together on these things and becoming one unit."
Triana said as important it is for county and city officials to be ready for the next big storm, it is just as important for citizens to be ready.
"Each year we don't have a hurricane we get rusty," Triana said. "We got to make sure we are practicing those things and citizens are as well."
The Nacogdoches Fire Department also said they work hard to educate the public.
"In the city we can walk door to door pretty fast," Kiplinger said. "In the country we have to go over a larger area for the population so it may be 72 hours before we can get to someone. They need to make sure they have enough non-perishable foods and water for that time. A person can go through a gallon a day so they need to plan. Our main focus after dealing with the elderly and the hospitals is to then go to the stores and then the homes. People need to be prepared."
Triana also said it is important to volunteer with the Red Cross if you are able to when the storm hits.