During the pre-dawn hours of September 24th, powerful Hurricane Rita slammed into the Southwest Louisiana coastline near Johnson's Bayou in western Cameron Parish. While extensive damage occurred, minimal loss of life was observed. the last major hurricane to hit this area was Audrey in late June 1957. Audrey made landfall near Cameron, and left between five and six hundred people dead in its wake.
There are many reasons for the significant reduction in the number of deaths from Hurricane Rita. The National Weather Service office in lake Charles, along with numerous local, state and federal officials worked diligently over the years and right up to landfall to provide information to emergency management, responders and the public.
Hurricane conferences, hurricane hunter aircraft tours, mutual aid associations, emergency management and responder workshops and drills, civic club luncheons, school tours and open house events are just some of the means used to keep the public informed of such potential catastrophic weather events.
More than a week prior to Rita's landfall, the NWS office in Lake Charles began conference calls with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, Southeast Texas local emergency managers, Southwest Louisiana local emergency managers and the Southwest Louisiana Shelter Task Force. In addition, office staff gave numerous information briefings daily on the position, forecast track and strength of this potentially dangerous hurricane to emergency mangers, local officials, media and NOAA HazMat. In the days leading up to Rita's landfall, conference calls with these four primary emergency management groups were held four times a day.
The flow of information between these various agencies has been vastly improved due to the recent modernization of the National Weather Service and the partnering with the emergency managements/response community. As a result, forecast as well as emergency response procedures and flow of information relating to our Gulf Coast hurricane threat to the public, industry and media has improved significantly.
Three days prior to landfall, NWS Lake Charles proactively began issuing Hurricane Local Statements, even before the usual threshold of hurricane/tropical storm watches or warnings had been issued. The office electronics staff performed maintenance checks on all equipment to insure that the systems were running properly so that office operations could be sustained throughout the storm without interruption.
Based upon this accumulated knowledge and information, local officials called for a voluntary evacuation three days before the storm...and a mandatory evacuation two days before landfall. As a result, most individuals heeded the call.
It is our mission and goal to protect life and property. Communication, public awareness, forecasts and emergency response weaknesses obvious in 1957 have largely been corrected through partnerships built between the National Weather Service and emergency managers and responders. The low number of fatalities associated with Rita are an indication that we are on the right track.