Sep 26, 2005
At least 24 sick, elderly patients from a nursing home in a Houston suburb were killed trying to flee Hurricane Rita. The Houston Chronicle reported that one of the wheels on their bus had a blowout. Then the wheel caught fire, which apparently set off explosions from oxygen tanks that some passengers needed to breathe. Horrified onlookers and the bus driver were not able to get most of the patients off the burning bus alive.
The bus, carrying 38 frail passengers and six staff from a nursing home in a Houston suburb, had been trapped 16 hours in the miles-long backup of cars trying to reach Dallas from Houston.
And what led to the 50 to 100 mile backup seen on television by the entire country? An evacuation plan that was a disaster. Texas officials apparently learned nothing from the New Orleans disaster.
Like New Orleans, the plans for evacuation rested essentially on individual cars. This, in a city where one in every 12 people was reported to have no access to a vehicle.
The mayor of Houston talked of mandatory evacuations on Wednesday, but then he asked businesses to voluntarily let non-essential employees leave – but not until Thursday.
So Thursday presented a monumental traffic backup in the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Officials didn't anticipate it. They could not even decide how many lanes of the freeway should be outbound or if some lanes should be left open for emergency vehicles. And finally when it became completely log jammed, they ordered people NOT to leave or go back.
The only thing that saved the people of Houston and Galveston was that Hurricane Rita turned away from their area.
Reporters found after the bus tragedy that the company operating it, Global Limo, had its operating license suspended in May for safety violations!
Why were patients with oxygen tanks being transported by such a company? Because the state eased safety rules for vehicles to be used in the evacuation. So some nursing homes ended up with buses with worn tires. Reporters also mentioned seeing many other people on old buses without air conditioning in 90-degree heat. As a result 24 people died. The media reported that when people without a car tried to call government offices for help, no one answered. When nursing home operators tried to get the bus companies they thought would transport their residents, the buses had gone somewhere else. The governor said FEMA had ambulances, while FEMA officials said they knew of no ambulances.
Gas stations ran out of gas, banks closed. But even with money and gasoline, the line of cars could not go anywhere.
Houston and New Orleans both showed that there is no disaster planning in this country. The United States does not begin to use its available resources to help its own population. Chaos and death are what we get in a society where, we are told, "the market" will take care of everything.