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September 23, 2005

"Get out of town" is not a plan

The roads out of Houston are still clogged.

Early Thursday morning Texas authorities finally decided to allow contraflow traffic on Interstate 45 and other key evacuation corridors. More contraflow arteries will be opened later today.

What state and local officials had estimated would take six hours to get from Galveston to Huntsville on Interstate 45 was actually close to 13 hours, state officials admitted. Still, opening up contra flow lanes was the last thing [Texas Department of Transportation] wanted to do.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Janelle Gbur, a department spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “TxDOT has never reversed flow on a freeway.” [Galveston Daily News]
So, what, if anything, can emergency managers do to help the people stuck on the highway right now? What can we learn about evacuating a major car-dependent city? What have we learned from previous hurricanes?

Evacuation-related traffic jams on this scale have been tackled before with considerable success:

In September 1999 roughly three million people were evacuated from coastal areas in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina prior to landfall of Hurricane Floyd. Over 500,000 South Carolinians evacuated from six coastal counties. Because managers with the South Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety had not agreed on a lane reversal plan prior to Hurricane Floyd, contraflow (i.e., lane reversal) was not employed during the evacuation. Consequently, there was severe congestion on Interstate 26 between Charleston and Columbia. Traffic and emergency managers quickly developed a contraflow plan for reentry operations after the hurricane. (Read the full case study .pdf)

Here's another interesting site from the US Department of Transportation concerning best practices for road management in disasters.

Maybe Houston is doing everything right and this snarl-up is unavoidable--we'll never know unless we educate ourselves about best practices before the spin machine really cranks up. I'm not saying that we should all become armchair emergency managers, but it's important to familiarize ourselves with some basic concepts so that we can at least think critically about what authorities and their experts are about to tell us. Let's be prepared to wade through the bullshit.

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Comments

I'm totally past my last nerve at this point. I have family living along the Texas coast, and we don't know where they are, although we know they evacuated. So we assume they're stuck in a traffic jam, even though they know all the backroads.

Jaysus, what a freakin' mess.

Cookie, I'm so sorry.

Thanks, Lindsey. At the moment, it looks like it's going to be okay. They're evacuating from Corpus Christi to Austin, and the latest news has Corpus Christi on the edges of the hit, but not in it.

If worse comes to worse, they'll likely just go somewhere else in Texas --- or maybe even Mexico. :=D

When Corpus was in the zone, I was not having pretty thughts. But --- whew. I think it will be okay.

that was a really great post and some perspective on the fact that Houston was a bungled operation. We, of course, have dealt successfully with evacuations before so what really is the problem this time? I am not sure if this was in your post or another one before it, but the point was made that evacuation is not a strategy or plan to deal with hurricanes.

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