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Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Rita evacuation - what should we do differently

The other day, a local talk radio host (and Houston at-large city councilman) Michael Berry posed the question "If you were King for a day... what would you have done differently during the Rita evacuation?" Since I'm not able to participate in the discussion via call-in due to early morning meetings, I thought it would be good to explore the issue here.

First of all, I was not surprised by the pace or the organization of the evacuation. Plans for evacuation were made far in advance and communicated to the overall area. Houston proper has a population of approximately 4 million people. Galveston has about one-half of a million people. In between these cities (where I live) is easily an additional 0.5 million or more people. At the time the evacuation was called, Hurricane Rita, a major hurricane, was heading right for us.

My wife took the kids at around 10 am and drove from our house to her mother's in Round Rock (north of Austin). The trip usually takes around 4 hours - that day it took 6.5. I left at 5:30 that afternoon after the announcement that starting at 6 pm you would have to follow the pre-planned evacuation route for your area and my area was to go in the opposite direction from my family so I left. It took me 16 hours for the normally 4 hour trip.

So first - what went right.
  1. The routes were laid out and communicated very plainly to everyone who took the time to listen.
  2. AM talk radio provided a forum for traffic reports in real time on what the best routes were in various areas.
  3. People helped each other as they could providing maps and directions to the best route out or the nearest gas station with fuel.
  4. All toll roads were free of charge during the entire event.
  5. Mayor Lyda fully evacuated Galveston of all non essential people including providing transportation to those people who needed it.
  6. Mayor White and Governor Perry adjusted their plan as the night wore on to compensate for the traffic, fuel shortages and other unplanned events.
  • When the DOT said that the freeways could not be made for counterflow to move the traffic, they found a way.
  • When cars were stalled out due to running out of fuel, they dispatched tankers to provide gas to get the cars moving.
  • Abandoned cars were towed which made sure that the vehicles were secured from criminals or the storm.
So after 16 hours of sitting in traffic, could it have been any better? You better believe it!

Things I would do differently in coordinating an evacuation (many of these are being implemented for 2007:
  1. Tell people who are not in the flood areas to stay put. The primary cause for death in a hurricane is the storm surge. Rita was a major hurricane. Everyone was spooked big time by what we saw happen in New Orleans a month earlier. This led to the Mayor telling everyone in Houston to get out. Most of Houston is high ground and should not evacuate. Instead of getting more people to safety, all this did was to clog already crowded roadways.
  2. Provide access between the freeways and the frontage roads. Some freeway exits were closed preventing people on the freeway from getting to the feeder roads for food, rest stops and gas. Likewise, once you were on a feeder road, you couldn't get back on to the freeway.
  3. Extend counter-flow lanes on the freeways further east and south. A new system of hurricane lanes providing counter-flow traffic on the major freeways has been put into place. It has not been tested. The big issue I see with these lanes is that they begin too late. Each counterflow area begins well to the north or west of the city. Traffic backups began around Beltway 8, Hwy 3 and the Gulf Freeway all south of the city. We evacuees will still have to wait in traffic several hours before we reach the hurricane lanes and get any traffic relief. It is a very good idea that just needs to be expanded - especially south down 45 into Galveston.
  4. Provide factual information for the return trip back home after the storms passes. The local news media regularly reported how bad the inbound traffic was after the storm of all the returning evacuees. Only one problem - IT WASN'T TRUE!!! As I listened to how bad the traffic was I watched the Transtar cameras on the web and saw that the highways were wide open. I drove through town at 65 mph listening to the radio telling people not to return because the roads were too jammed. If we can't trust the news for something as simple as traffic when the storm missed us then how can we trust them for honest information if the storm actually hit us head on?
These are some of my thoughts on how the evacuation could have been handled better. Overall I really think it went fairly well. Yes there was excessive traffic, anyone who drives on the Katy, the West Loop or either portion of I-45 knows that Houston is a giant parking lot every day of the week.

More traffic during a 2 county evacuation is to be expected. Bring drinks, some food something to read and make sure your tank is full. Then head out, get on the freeway, put it in park and relax. You will be there a long while. That much is not likely to change.

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