Image: Houston mayor Bill White
Michael Stravato  /  AP file
Houston Mayor Bill White, low-key and unassuming, was new to office when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. He scored high marks for welcoming evacuees from that storm into the nation's fourth-largest city.
updated 9/12/2008 7:00:56 PM ET 2008-09-12T23:00:56

Houston's quiet-spoken mayor is hardly one for bold moves. But there was Bill White, telling Houstonians to ride out Hurricane Ike because it was too late to escape.

It may seem like the wrong advice when a monster storm is on its way. But given the chaos that ensued in 2005 when the city evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita, the risky move may be the safest one.

White, a low-key and unassuming Democrat, was new to office when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. He scored high marks then for welcoming evacuees from that storm into the nation's fourth-largest city.

A few weeks later, he faced another test with Rita. Evacuations were ordered and millions fled, causing traffic jams so big that cars ran out of gas or overheated. Ultimately, the evacuation proved deadlier than the storm itself. A total of 110 people died during the exodus, including 23 nursing home patients whose bus burst into flames while stuck in traffic.

Somehow, White deflected most of the blame, in part because any missteps were overshadowed by the devastation in New Orleans following Katrina, said University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray.

"White sort of had these hurricanes that defined him, generally favorably," Murray said. "If you're not a klutz, you can usually make a natural disaster a plus."

A different approach
With Ike, White and his counterparts in Harris County took a decidedly different approach. In the days leading up to landfall, inland residents were told to stay put. One of the lessons of Rita, White said, was that too many people fled who didn't need to. Instead, only the lowest-lying areas were evacuated this week, while others were told to stay home.

"Nothing good happens from a hurricane that hits right close to you," White said. "I would ask all Houstonians to think about their neighbors."

The son of schoolteachers, White made a fortune as a Houston attorney before leaving his practice in 1993 to join the Clinton administration as deputy energy secretary. He resigned in 1995 to become state Democratic chairman, then made another fortune in private energy business before embarking on the costliest mayoral race in Houston history in 2003.

He spent more than $2 million of his own money to get elected, eventually winning a runoff against a Republican former city councilman. Now many see White, barred by term limits from a fourth two-year term as mayor, as the party's best hope in a state dominated by Republicans. He's often mentioned as a candidate for the U.S. Senate or a possible gubernatorial in 2010.

White remained coy last year when asked about his next move.

"I'm not real keen on people who seem to spend more time thinking about what office they'll run for next rather than what they're doing every day in their current job," he said.

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