“We thought about giving toe tags to all those who wouldn’t leave,” Refugio County Judge Rene Mascorro confided Monday. “We were going to tell them, ‘Tie this on your toe and write your name on it so we can identify your body, and while you are at it, tie one on the big toe of each of your children.’ But we couldn’t find any toe tags.”
Only 40 percent of the county’s populace — two out of every five people — evacuated last week, authorities estimate.
“The problem is you can’t make people leave their homes,” Mascorro said. “It’s a sticky civil rights issue: your home is supposed to be your castle. We didn’t know any other way to explain to people just how dangerous it would be to try to ride out this hurricane other than to hand out toe tags. We were hoping they’d get the message then.”
Refugio County residents who didn’t think they needed to evacuate would do well to pay attention to what happened in the Galveston-Houston area because of Hurricane Ike, Mascorro said.
The category 2 storm is credited with 47 deaths, 17 of those in Texas. While some of those people drowned because they refused to leave their seaside homes, many died after the storm, according to news reports.
Mascorro said the county’s emergency management plans also called for opening a make-shift morgue in an old school house.
“It has a kitchen with a large walk-in freezer,” he explained. “It is the perfect place to use as a temporary morgue.”
Overall, Mascorro said he was pleased with how smoothly the evacuation proceeded.
The county called for a mandatory evacuation of coastal communities of Tivoli, Austwell and Bayside last Wednesday and a voluntary evacuation of Refugio and Woodsboro, located inland.
“I give them an A-plus for effort; it was a great success, so help me God,” said Refugio Mayor Rey Jaso. “Everybody was on the same boat. Everybody communicated with each other and everybody knew what they were supposed to do. We had buses ready and we had ambulances ready and it was simply a case of great planning on the part of city and county officials.”
Jaso particularly commended Stan Upton, the emergency management coordinator for Refugio County.
“He really did an outstanding job,” Jaso added. “Stan had a great plan ready to go and everything ran like clockwork.”
School buses were used to pick up residents in Tivoli, Austwell and Bayside who had no transportation of their own. They were dropped off at the community center in Refugio where they boarded chartered buses provided by the state and were taken to shelters in San Antonio and Seguin. From there, they were transported to other shelters.
About 100 residents countywide accepted rides to shelters elsewhere in the state. Many others evacuated by their own means.
After the storm threat had passed, a school bus was sent up to collect the residents.
Mascorro said collecting the residents from across the state was somewhat problematic, as was refueling the bus, but they all made it back to Refugio County by 3 a.m. Sunday safe and sound.
“I think the evacuation went very well, as far as planning goes,” Mascorro said. “We would have liked to have seen more people evacuate but that was out of our hands.”
He said the emergency management plan called on collecting residents three times, at noon Wednesday, at 8 a.m. Thursday and again at 4 p.m. Thursday.
“The buses arrived on time and transported our citizens to the community center, and the chartered buses took them out of harm’s way,” Mascorro said. “Our people didn’t have to worry about transportation or having enough money for a motel or food. All they had do was worry about getting out of the way of the hurricane.”
If there were hitches, it was having too few volunteers at the community center to help out with evacuees, not planning to cope with the problems of refueling the bus sent to collect the county’s residents at shelters around the state, and not knowing where the residents were being sheltered, Mascorro said.
“It was a good training session for us,” he said. “We learned a lot about what we did right and what we could have done better,” he said. “During the next hurricane, we’ll be better prepared to evacuate our people.”
Fortunately, Mascorro said, the county did not have to implement the second phase of its emergency management plan that dealt with the aftermath of the storm: rescuing people, searching for bodies, removing debris, as well as feeding and sheltering survivors.
Refugio Police Chief Chris Brock said he, too, was pleased with the effectiveness of the emergency management plan.
“Everyone knew what to do and everyone — every agency — was in constant communication with the other,” he said. “We worked as a team.”
He said his own department benefited from lessons learned during Hurricane Rita in 2005.
“We had a lot more police presence this time,” he explained. “During Rita, we had half a million people pass through Refugio and we were not ready for that mass evacuation. We didn’t even know they were heading our way until they showed up.”
Many of those travelers attempted to erect tents or put up travel trailers in parking lots or on the side of roads, he recalled.
“We had people using parking lots for public restrooms and we had trash thrown out all over the place during Rita. This time we didn’t have any of that.”
He said all of his officers worked overtime to ensure that evacuees from the upper Texas Gulf Coast moved through Refugio County.
“We’re not a sheltering community so anytime we saw someone who looked to be stopping and setting up a tent or RV we got them back on the road,” he said.
“We put in more than 130 hours of overtime and we’re exhausted. We’re tired but we did our job protecting homes and business and keeping our citizens safe.”