Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Katrina/Rita Lesson 2: Evacuation

Evacuation as hurricanes Katrina and Rita approached the Gulf Coast did not go smoothly. Evacuation from the Texas Gulf Coast in advance of Rita went especially poorly. Evacuation from the New Orleans area had problems, though not as severe.

I have talked with several people who evacuated from New Orleans and Houston. In each case, the travel times were dramatically greater than normal. In one case, a couple from New Orleans took 16 hours to go from New Orleans to Houston, a trip of 7 hours usually.

The travel times in the evacuation from Houston were worse. One couple went 10.5 miles in 9 hours! They turned around and returned home. Others had similar stories. Having made little progress to their destinations and seeing their gas gauges approach empty, they went back home rather than risk being caught on the road in a hurricane.

Several factors contributed to the evacuation difficulties. In Texas, the state was slow to authorize use of the inbound lanes for outbound evacuation traffic. Once the decision was made, valuable time and manpower was required to block entrances to the contraflow lanes and to get existing inbound traffic off the highway. In the future, the decision to contraflow traffic must be made more quickly (perhaps automatically) in order to move evacuation traffic more efficiently.

Families with 2 cars evacuated with both, thus increasing the already huge volume of evacuation traffic and further straining scarce gasoline supplies. Next time, public pronouncements must discourage the use of multiple cars to evacuate one household. Many people will still take 2 or more cars, but any reduction in traffic volume will help to speed the traffic away from dangerous coastal areas.

People who were not in mandatory evacuation areas evacuated anyway. People on the Texas Gulf Coast had seen the devastation wrought by Katrina and were less willing to stay in areas that did not require evacuation. Next time, public pronouncements must make clear what areas are under mandatory evacuation, what areas should consider evacuation, and what areas do not need to evacuate. Many people will ignore a request to stay in place out of fear, but clear guidelines will help people make the best decisions and will reduce evacuation traffic.

Public transit can not evacuate the number of people trying to evacuate. Busses are better than trains for evacuating people, if only because trains have fixed and limited routes. Busses can alter their routes and can take people out of the evacuation area. However, there is not enough capacity to evacuate everyone on planes, trains, and busses. The automobile is the vehicle of choice to evacuate the greatest number of people in a limited time. Though environmentalists and public transit supporters oppose highway construction, the highway capacity must increase to handle growing normal traffic and to avoid bottlenecks in an emergency. Evacuation needs must be a factor in the consideration of highway projects.

All available resources must be put to use to evacuate people who do not have cars. Houston and surrounding cities did this well on the whole, but New Orleans failed miserably. Make workable plans to notify everyone of mandatory evacuation and to evacuate them. When a hurricane approaches, follow the plan. A failure to implement the evacuation plan completely wastes the efforts to make the plan.

Once the mass evacuation is underway, resources of gasoline, water, and food become severely strained. The state must plan to provide emergency supplies along the evacuation routes. Some rationing of gasoline may be required so that all evacuees will be able to reach safety.

In an emergency evacuation, traffic along the evacuation routes becomes severely congested. It may be necessary to have police at strategic points to make traffic flow more smoothly and quickly.

The evacuations of New Orleans and the Texas Gulf Coast worked on the whole, but there were glitches. In too many case, evacuees had to depend on the kindness of strangers to take them in. At least one small town outside Houston unexpectedly housed 3,000 evacuees who otherwise would have been stranded on the highway. People did respond to help others, and they improvised and volunteered on the spur of the moment to avert a crisis. We are all thankful for the many who reached out to help strangers in need of food and shelter. Next time, however, the state should follow the recommendations above to avoid the problems.

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