Skip to comments.Even with head start, Houston had a problem
Posted on 09/24/2005 1:13:44 PM PDT by Graybeard58
Texas officials sketched a staggered, orderly evacuation plan for Hurricane Rita and urged people to get out days ahead of time.
But tangles still arrived even before the storm's first bands. Panicked drivers ran out of gas, a spectacular, deadly bus fire clogged traffic, and freeways were red rivers of taillights that stretched to the horizon.
In an age of terrorist danger and with memories of the nightmare in New Orleans still fresh, the Texas exodus raises a troubling question: Can any American city empty itself safely and quickly?
Thousands of drivers remained stranded Friday to the north and west of Houston. Many were stuck in extreme heat, out of gas -- as gas trucks, rumored to be on the way, or at least buses to evacuate motorists, never came.
They were frustrated, angry and growing desperate, scattered and stranded across a broad swath of the state as the monster storm bore down.
Houston is a landlocked city, an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico. Besides Houston's 4 million people fleeing, as many as 2 million were trying to get out through Houston from the coastal side.
In Galveston County along the Gulf, authorities set up three evacuation zones, beginning Wednesday evening and staggered at eight-hour intervals, with the most outlying areas to be the first to leave. But people in all three zones left early anyway, further snarling traffic.
From Houston, the main roads out of town -- Interstate 10 to San Antonio, I-45 to Dallas, and U.S. Highway 290 to Austin -- were turned into one-way thoroughfares only Thursday, and even then the one-way flow began well outside Houston.
"There were some weaknesses," Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat, acknowledged to KTRK-TV on Friday. "We could have fixed some of the elements ... a fuel truck that works, a mechanical system that works, and opening the contraflow," the term emergency officials use for routing all lanes in one direction.
Later in the day, Jackson Lee told The Associated Press the state should have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for supplies. "I'm marching people all over looking for gasoline," she said.
Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday decision to order one-way flow came after the storm, originally on a track south of Houston, changed course and headed toward Houston instead.
"It's not perfect," he said. "I wish I could wave a magic wand and somehow transport people magically from Houston, Texas, to Dallas or other points, but that's not the fact when you have the type of congestion that you see in the state of Texas on a daily basis."
He added: "I think when you look behind later, it will be almost miraculous that this many people were moved out of harm's way."
State emergency management coordinator Jack Colley said 2.5 million to 2.7 million Texans had already been moved out of harm's way, and the governor said 25 buses would canvass Beaumont, looking for people still trying to get out.
By midday Friday, lanes were restored to normal traffic. Still, many remained stranded beyond Houston's suburbs.
Before the late 1990s, emergency management officials were in charge of evacuations, and transportation engineers had little interest.
But those engineers have devoted great energy to the problem since Hurricane Georges forced an evacuation of New Orleans in 1998, and Hurricane Floyd an evacuation of the Carolinas in 1999.
Rita and her hellish predecessor, Katrina, come in the new age of terror, as authorities try to draw up plans for clearing out cities in the event of deadly strikes with unconventional weapons.
Still, experts say the massive coastal zone that needs to be cleared of people before a major hurricane is far larger than the area to be evacuated after an industrial accident or a terror attack.
In the event of a nuclear accident, federal rules require the evacuation of a 10-mile radius around the plant. After a so-called "dirty bomb" nuclear detonation or the release of chemical or biological weapons, only the region immediately downwind of the release point would have to be cleared.
"Natural disasters just dwarf anything that's manmade," said Reuben B. Goldblatt, a partner at traffic engineering firm KLD Associates in Commack, N.Y.
Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University, said Texas officials "will probably see there were things they could have done better."
But he added: "It's not economically or environmentally feasible to build enough roads to evacuate a city the size of Houston in a short time and with no congestion. It's just not going to happen."
It was a point all too clear to Bruce French, who left his home in Clear Lake, Texas, early Thursday, and ran out of gas just past Conroe, far short of his destination of Dallas. On Friday morning, he was stranded, waiting for fuel.
"They're giving $10 worth of gas if you're on empty and $5 if you have some," he said. "That's not going to get you very far."
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Associated Press writers Kristen Hays in Houston, Liz Austin in Austin and Suzanne Gamboa in Washington, National Writer Matt Crenson in New York and photographer Paul Sancya contributed to this story.
I hate the media!!!
Obviously, we need to install a vacuum-tube system like at banks to "chute" entire families out of town. Just drop the tube in the slot, hit "send," and chute yourself to the city of your choice.
Considering this is the biggest evacuation ever attempted in US history, we didn't do too bad.
Not one word about this from the lame stream media. They want to be able to blame the traffic jams on Texas officials. Won't do for the public to start seeing the difference in Texas and LA. They just have to find something to make Texas look bad. One info babe asked an official in Beaumont this morning how many looters did they have. He said none. No looters. She looked absolutely shocked. Instead of asking him IF they had any looters, she asks how many looters they had. I despise the media.
Pittsburgh could empty itself pretty quickly, unless the evacuation was on a weekend. They usually close some of the inbound and outbound parkway lanes for paving. Honestly, unless you own a hovercraft, no one is leaving Pittsburgh in an orderly or timely fashion.
It only took me six hours to get from League City to Austin.
Of course I left before noon on Wednesday. My employer reseased folks at noon., but if you hit the road promptly, you still would have beat the crush out of the evacuation areas.
The problem was made worse by nimrods in safe areas of Houston (Katy, Cypress, the Heights, the Woodlands, etc) that decided to leave for Dallas or Austin. Once you are fifty or so miles inland you are just as safe staying at home (assuming you do not live in a mobile home) as you are in Dallas or Austin. A tornado is just as likely to take the roof off the evacuation center you are in as off your house.
Agree. One can imagine what it would be like with no warning if several radition (dirty) bombs were set off in Houston.
There would be no "getting out" period.
Amen! God bless Texas!
You are correct. I think many people high inland parts of Houston suffered form Hurricane Envy.
How was the Evacuation of Houston better than that of New Orleans?
I do not think taking 24 hours to drive from Houston to Austin is clockwork.
Well, because Houston was actually evacuated?
LOL! I want to see Jesse in his Jetpack! Maybe he'll hit the wrong switch and be shot into a different galaxy.
No dissrespect intended but what do you expect when nearly 3 million people try to leave at the same time? You're not going to get me to criticize Texas. LOL