WEBSTER — As bad as Hurricane Ike was, hurricane expert Bill Read believes it could have been worse. Much worse.
He told the local chapter of the American Meteorology Society last week that if Ike had wobbled just a short jog to the south, making landfall at San Luis Pass, it would then have inundated Clear Lake and the ship channel industries with as much as two stories of storm surge and rainwater.
Supercomputer simulations show that shift would have put an additional 170,000 residences, all of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and most of the area’s petrochemical plants underwater. Instead, that particular portion of Ike’s destructive surge actually was directed east into wetlands and wilderness areas.
Read, the former head of the National Hurricane Center, is now the on-air hurricane expert for KPRC-TV. He spoke to the assembled weather experts about areas that his studies suggest could be even more vulnerable than the Galveston-Houston area.
Read’s research targeted the West Coast of Florida; the Jacksonville, Fla., area; the Virginia Tidewater region; the Lower Rio Grande Valley; and the area between Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.
All Read’s target areas lie at low elevations, have limited escape routes — some of which flood quickly — and all have coastal populations that have grown exponentially since they last experienced a major storm. Many also are filled with retirees.
“Studies show that retirees are the most resistant when it comes to evacuation,” he said.
Thankfully, Galveston’s evacuation routes don’t pass through tunnels, nor are they just above sea level as is the case in some of Read’s worst-case cities, but the take-away remains the same for those in Galveston County. Keep an eye on the Gulf and have a plan to leave safely when, not if, a storm threatens.
“The first thing I want folks to do is for them to become their own meteorologist by checking the weather twice a day,” Read said. “When you get up, catch the local TV, Internet or Weather Channel so you’re not surprised by a storm. Then repeat that process each evening during the season.”
Read pointed out that storms can form quickly and be on shore within as little as 48 hours, a Texas-sized threat most of the other vulnerable locations needn’t fear.
The colder waters of the East Coast don’t often allow for that kind of rapid formation and intensification. Instead, East Coast citizens often can see potential threats moving across open water for as much as a week before landfall.
Read’s own house is on some the highest ground in Galveston County. Though not officially in a flood zone, he said he always carries flood insurance and recommends that practice to all local homeowners.
“During my research, I was also dismayed to find out how many people in these places don’t carry flood insurance,” he said.
“If you don’t have flood insurance, you are the insurer.”