[Hpn] Evacuation Worked But Created A Highway Horror

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 26 Sep 2005 02:53:19 -0400


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http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-09-25-evacuation-cover_x.htm

September 26, 2005

Evacuation worked, but created a highway horror

By Patrick O'Driscoll, Richard Wolf and Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

HOUSTON - Hurricane Rita left this question: If a successful emergency
evacuation involves 100-mile highway backups, motorists running out of gas
and water, widespread road rage and the death of 23 seniors in a freak bus
accident, what would a failure look likeRita showed that evacuating a
sprawling metro area is at best slow and difficult, and that sometimes an
evacuation can rival its cause as a source of misery.
"The traffic looked worse than the storm," said Jennifer Powell, a
University of Houston student who reluctantly stayed in her second-floor
Galveston apartment after deciding it would take too long to flee.
But George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based
in Austin, summed up expert opinion: The evacuation went about as well as
could be expected. "There was substantial inconvenience," he said. "But if
you move 3 million people, you're going to cause a lot of inconvenience."
In a nation with a rich history of earthquakes, tornadoes, floods,
hurricanes, blizzards, volcanoes and terrorist attacks, there are more
potential disasters than can be planned or prepared for.
"You don't have the resources to childproof the entire country," Friedman
said.
If a hurricane that took a week to reach the Gulf Coast could provoke such
chaos, what would happen in case of a terrorist's radiological or chemical
strike?
"The nightmare that we all have is that, God forbid, there's a terrorist
attack of some kind on a major American city that requires evacuation
without warning," Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the
Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on CNN.
Rita struck Saturday morning near the Texas-Louisiana border with top winds
of 120 mph but inflicted far less damage than feared, especially in Houston
and other heavily populated areas. It quickly weakened to a minimal
hurricane and then a tropical storm.
Hence the recrimination over why so many fled Houston. Those sitting on the
highway had plenty of time to ponder.
"It caught (Texas officials) off-guard. I think they were so involved in
being generous to Louisiana (after Hurricane Katrina), they didn't work out
a plan for gas or anything here," said Christine Leu, who spent 16 hours in
traffic.
Houston Mayor Bill White expressed no regrets about evacuating for a storm
that went elsewhere. "You can't predict the weather. Hurricanes can move in
any direction. If you evacuate two or three times and it saves your life
only once, that once is enough."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that most people "did a great job of listening to
the officials and moving out in a relatively orderly (fashion). I know 15
hours in your car is a frustrating thing, but getting them out of that
storm's path was the mission, and they did it."
A massive exodus
If too few people evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, too many evacuated for
Rita. Prompted by officials' broad, forceful orders and memories of how
Katrina flooded New Orleans last month, nearly 3 million Texans fled on
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
In the island city of Galveston, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1900,
about 90% cleared out.
The later you left, the longer you sat. Danny Hart, 37, co-owner of a
restaurant-nightclub in Galveston, fled Wednesday and spent 12 hours on the
road. His wife, who left earlier, made the same trip in four hours; his
partner, who left later, spent 24 hours traveling 60 miles. "The evacuation
plan was good for Galveston," Hart said. "The problem was, everyone in
Houston left."
"They should have evacuated by ZIP code," said Monica Hackett, who was stuck
in her car for 13 hours with her six children, her mother, a cousin and two
dogs - and never got out of Houston.
But Friedman, the intelligence analyst, argued that it's impossible to plan
truly large-scale evacuations, or to break them into stages: "Do you want to
be the person with the last ticket to leave?" he asked. "You can't evacuate
a population of 2 to 3 million and control when they're going to evacuate."
Some saw room for modest improvement, such as faster conversion of two-way
streets and highways into one-way evacuation routes. In New Orleans and
Houston, half the highway lanes went virtually unused until the end of the
evacuation.
"We need to fine-tune the planning so that contra-lanes are open earlier so
that all the outgoing traffic can go on both sides of a freeway earlier than
was done in Rita," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on ABC's This
Week.
Perry, the governor, said he was proud that both directions of Interstate 45
eventually were opened to handle people flowing north from Houston: "You
don't just go out and plug up an interstate on one side and shift it over in
an hour or two. I mean, it takes some time. It takes some personnel."
Such measures can improve the flow of traffic by 66%, according to a 2001
Louisiana State University study. But such steps also can cause an increase
in accidents, restrict the flow of emergency vehicles and make it hard for
drivers to exit for fuel and food.
In general, Perry said, the evacuation taught valuable lessons.
"We will learn from this one," he said. "I think that's really important
that we're sharing that information, so when this happens - it may not be a
hurricane, it may be some other event that occurs - a city like Los Angeles
or Miami can use some of the things that we've learned in Katrina and in
Rita."
Hurricane Rita smashed into a region that is wealthier, more mobile and less
densely populated than the one devastated by Hurricane Katrina. According to
an Associated Press analysis of Census data, most of Rita's evacuees were
less likely to live in poverty, more likely to own a car and less likely to
be a member of a minority group than were Katrina's victims.
Experts said the mobility of people in Rita's path - combined with a new
sense of urgency after Katrina - led to a more thorough evacuation.
"They have cars," said Carnot Nelson, a psychology professor at the
University of South Florida. "They have a way to leave. It's as simple as
that."
But will those who evacuated last week do the same when the next storm comes
blowing?
Hurricane Floyd redux
That issue was raised in 1999 by Hurricane Floyd, which also introduced the
problem of people who shouldn't flee a storm but do.
Floyd, the largest peacetime evacuation in American history, was really the
largest over-evacuation; more than 3 million people hit the roads, jamming
traffic from South Florida to South Carolina.
People living inland who had not been ordered to evacuate saw images of the
600-mile-wide monster on television and started their engines. Also, Floyd
(like Rita) was the second hurricane in a one-two punch. Hurricane Dennis
had come ashore in North Carolina as a tropical storm about a week earlier.
The result was familiar to anyone in Houston last week. Lines of cars
stretched for hundreds of miles on several interstates. Many motorists could
not find gas, food or a bathroom.
The storm eventually weakened and didn't turn inland until it reached North
Carolina. But if people had waited longer to evacuate, and if Floyd had
picked up speed and turned left, the result could have been disastrous.
That, however, was not the lesson many coastal residents drew from the
evacuation experience; many told reporters they'd never do it again.
Here's what some Texans endured last week as they tried to get away from
Rita:
Solie Jimenez left the Houston suburb of Pasadena at 4 a.m. Thursday with
her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son heading for Lufkin, more than 100
miles northeast. But 24 hours later, they were still in their car - and
still not out of Houston.
"We were in the contra-flow lane," Jimenez, 29, an accountant, said of the
plan that reversed the highway's southbound lanes for northbound traffic to
ease congestion. "That was a huge mistake. It was worse than on the other
side. It just stopped. We sat there forever. It took us nine hours to go 10
miles.
"I finally called my mother and said, 'I can't take this anymore. We have to
get out of here.' "
Finally she jumped the curb, got off the highway and wound up at a shelter
around 4 a.m. Friday. In 24 hours, they had traveled 40 miles.
Christine Leu was trying to drive the 100 miles from her Houston suburb to
College Station with two kids and a sick sister. She thought it would take
three hours.
After a dozen hours on the highway, fatigue and thirst took their toll on
her driving ability, she recalled. "How do you mess up bumper-to-bumper? I
bumped the people in front of me. I rolled back into the people behind me."
She pulled off the highway and knocked on a front door. The residents helped
find a hospital for Leu's sister; she and the children wound up in a
shelter.
Monica Hackett said that on Highway 290 in Houston, "People were wrecking
into each other, not paying attention. They were so tired, cussing, rude. I
heard on the radio, people saying, 'Everybody's being so nice on the road.'
They were not. They were flipping people off, cutting around you. I was so
worn out."
The evacuation of the sick and elderly proved to be a major challenge in the
evacuation, just as it had in New Orleans before and after Katrina hit.
Otis Patterson, 44, a cross-country truck driver, said the story of the
seniors killed in the bus fire resonated with him. His father, Ozan
Patterson, 80, a dialysis patient and stroke victim, needs supplementary
oxygen 24 hours a day. Patterson's sister, Lorraine Nelson, drove their
father from his home in Port Arthur, Texas, to a cousin's house in Austin.
They were stuck in traffic from 11 p.m. Wednesday until 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
His father ran out of bottled oxygen.
"There was nothing they could do except keep the air (conditioning) burning
as high as they could. My sister called ahead from Houston to set up
dialysis treatment for Friday afternoon."
Their father survived. "It was pretty scary," Patterson said.
They were lucky - this time
Amid the confusion, some Houstonians decided not to go.
Laura Van Ness stayed in her apartment on the eighth floor of a sturdy, 1927
building in Houston that sits 50 feet above sea lea level. She was prepared
with extra water, food, flashlights and batteries. She'd taped her windows
and moved the furniture and oriental rugs into the hallway. But Rita
provided so little excitement that Van Ness went to bed during the storm.
"We never heard loud rain or even lightning," she said. Her building never
lost electricity.
Despite her relatively happy experience staying put, Van Ness said she hoped
other people won't be complacent: "You shouldn't decide to stay because the
hurricane didn't hit you last time."
The television images of gridlock, abandoned vehicles and exhausted families
left some residents of Galveston swearing they would not go through it
again.
"Next time, a lot of people aren't leaving. I know I'm not," said Mary
Garza, co-owner with her husband Willie of Mary's Place, a nightclub near
the historic Strand district. They had driven 22 hours last week to get to
Lake Livingston, normally a two-hour drive.
Others were more open to evacuating the next time a Category 3, 4 or 5
hurricane bears down on their part of coastal Texas.
Jacob Safada drove for 16 hours Wednesday and early Thursday to get to
Lufkin, a trip that usually takes 2 1/2 hours. "What can you do sometimes?
That's life," he said Sunday while sprucing up his T-shirt shop on the
Strand. "No complaints - absolutely not."

O'Driscoll reported from Houston; Wolf from Galveston; Hampson from New
Jersey.
Contributing: Dennis Cauchon in Columbus, Ohio; Larry Copeland in Port
Arthur, Texas; Edward Iwata in Houston; The Associated Press

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