National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

by Stephen K. Rinard
(Now Former) Meteorologist-in-Charge, NWS Lake Charles


It was Friday afternoon and Cameron Parish Emergency Manager and Homeland Defense Director Freddie Richard had accomplished all he could do. His parish had already 100% evacuated in the face of onrushing hurricane Rita. It was mid afternoon and already hurricane force wind gusts were beginning to tear at buildings and trees. The storm surge had begun but was largely held back by the offshore northeast winds. During the most recent of many routine briefings with the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office (WFO) Lake Charles when told "it was time to get out", Richard reluctantly agreed and headed north to safety knowing he had accomplished everything possible to protect his parish from the oncoming fury.

The Rita hurricane event moved up a significant notch during the early morning hours of Thursday, September 22 when the National Hurricane Center shifted the point of landfall from the central Texas coast eastward to the vicinity of Galveston. From what was previously a central Texas problem suddenly became a significant southeast Texas and western Louisiana problem. The emergency response organizations in these areas previously on guarded standby now rapidly sprung into their prearranged response plans.

But, in Lake Charles, what turned out to be a critical decision had already been made the previous Tuesday. During a Calcasieu Parish meeting, it was decided to cancel school Wednesday to free school buses for transport of refugees from Hurricane Katrina currently sheltered in Lake Charles. On Wednesday, as the Rita threat increased, school as canceled Thursday and Friday (including high school football games). This set in motion an increased sense of awareness and urgency of the general population.

With evacuations and sheltering related to hurricane Katrina estimated greater than 25,000 people still in progress, Beauregard Parish Emergency Manager and Louisiana Shelter Task Force chairman Glen Mears was already fully involved. By Thursday, the forecast landfall change of Rita further east added tremendously to the workload. After the winds settled from Rita, Mears and relief agencies such as the Red Cross had coordinated the sheltering of over 50,000 evacuates within the state. It is estimated up to 250,000 people evacuated areas of southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana in front of Rita.

Just as these officials effectively responded to the increasing threat from Rita, similarly, emergency managers, emergency responders and elected officials throughout southeast Texas and central Louisiana responded in similar ways. Their goal was to protect the citizens of their communities.

Emergency response plans, routinely updated and drilled over the years, were pulled off the shelves and acted upon. Command centers quickly became operational. State, county, parish and local officials activated emergency plans they hoped would be used only for practice but never for actual use.

Likewise, WFO Lake Charles also responded with increasing urgency. Besides routine forecast and warning products and briefings directed to the public, two senior staff members were dedicated to brief emergency managers, media and elected officials routinely providing them with the most updated and specific information available via conference calls and press conferences. Thus, public decision makers had available the latest status and forecast information of wind, rain and storm surge with which to base their critical Rita related decisions. The media had similar information to keep the public informed.

The partnerships developed over the years between elected officials, emergency management and emergency responders (many of whom are associated with organizations as the Sabine-Neches Chiefs Association, Southwest Louisiana Mutual Aid Association and the East Texas Mutual Aid Association) have resulted in countless planning sessions, hurricane conferences, drills and meetings. Similar partnerships have been developed with the general public through hurricane hunter aircraft tours, hurricane conferences, civic club meetings, office tours and open house.

Through such partnerships, general knowledge of the most significant threat to our community on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico...the hurricane has been thoroughly discussed. Emergency decision makers more fully understand the threat, emergency responders more fully understand how to respond and the WFO can relate the science specifically to the needs of the community.

What was the result of Hurricane Rita along and inland of our coast? The area between Sabine Pass and Beaumont, Texas to Vermilion Bay, Louisiana stretching inland into southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana was struck hard by this major hurricane. Much of Cameron Parish and Sabine Pass were destroyed by wind and storm surge. Surge levels resulted in flooding in areas of Lake Charles. Almost every structure in the Lake Charles area suffered some form of roof damage. Extensive areas south of Abbeville and New Iberia suffered storm surge flooding. Extensive power outages caused by falling trees extended far into northeast Texas.

And what was the result of these preparedness efforts and partnerships? Considering the primary mission of the National Weather Service, emergency management and elected officials is to protect life, those efforts were highly successful during our Hurricane Rita event. About 50 years ago, Hurricane Audrey came ashore in Cameron Parish resulting in the deaths of 500-600 souls. Hurricane Rita, a very similar hurricane, came ashore near the same location and caused a very minimal loss of life to the extent it is hardly mentioned by the media.

This success story is sometimes obscured by piles of debris, blue covered roofs and the extreme hardships suffered by coastal residents, but as a result of partnerships developed over many years, we are alive to continue and make things better in the future because of public awareness of our hurricane threat and the knowledge of how to protect the heart-beats of our community.