Friday, September 23


This morning's "Houston Chronicle" (registration required) carries many stories of an historic evacuation of a major metropoilitan area gone awry. This blog pointed to an emerging controversy in this post last night. Essentially what has happened is that the state was responsible for ensuring adequate supplies of fuel to effect the evacuation and it did not deliver. As a result, people are stranded in their cars and trucks along designated evacuation routes with Hurricane Rita fast approaching and they're more vulnerable now than if they were sitting in mobile homes in the storm's path. The last thing you want to be stuck in is an automobile in hurricane force winds.

Excerpts from the Chronicle:

Thousands of evacuees remain stranded on freeways out of Houston today, but tankers full of gasoline are on their way.

The pre-hurricane disaster that began Thursday was the traffic jams that trapped motorists on freeways all day as they tried to flee the Gulf Coast. Many vehicles ran out of fuel on highways where cars inched along.

"We've got people stuck in traffic, but we've got 24 hours. We're going to have fuel there, and we're going to get them out," said Steve McCraw, state director of Homeland Security.

This blog reported last night that the state was sending 200,000 gallons of fuel (purchased from Exxon-Mobile) to replenish depleted fuel inventories at gas stations along evacuation routes, but television reports this morning have not confirmed that this has happened as yet. Indeed, the Chronicle reports a different scenario -- at least belated in terms of fuel delivery -- than was covered in television news reports last evening:

The Texas National Guard was dispatching two 5,000 tankers from Austin at daybreak today to help motorists stranded along U.S. 290, U.S. 59, and Interstate 45 as well as Interstate 10.

The trucks are to work their way back toward Houston with 40,000 gallons of gasoline, and stranded motorists are asked to pop their hoods to signal they need fuel.

McCraw said the state also is working with the Texas Oil and Gas Association and Texas Tank Carriers Association to transport more than 200,000 gallons of fuel provided by Exxon Mobil to refuel the National Guard tankers. Some of the fuel also is going to service stations so they can reopen. Coast Guard helicopters were flying fuel to 11 different Texas Department of Transportation locations to refuel 100 trucks that are taking gas to stranded vehicles, McCraw said.

Understand that the evacuation, which may well exceed 2.0 million people, began in earnest earlier this week, and the gridlock that ensued in blazing record heat has been compounded by a lack of available fuel, which seems to have caught local Galveston-Houston officials by surprise.

It's not been a pretty picture and I suspect political fall-out will come in time. As the Chronicle reports in another related story:

Thousands of furious evacuees sweltering for hours on traffic-choked freeways Thursday put a stain on what had been a generally successful response by state and local governments faced with back-to-back weather emergencies in Texas.

"This was not in the plan," County Judge Robert Eckels said, turning away from the lectern after a news briefing dominated by questions about the gridlock that resulted from the evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita.

For the most part, the officials didn't offer much analysis of what might have gone wrong. They focused instead on the scramble to keep thousands of motorists from what Mayor Bill White called a potential "death trap" should the storm strike while they were stranded on the road.

What Mayor White and Judge Eckels did do was point in the direction of Austin and the governor's office.

Texas took in approximately 250,000 Katrina evacuees from neighboring Louisiana and Mississippi with an efficiency that drew plaudits from around the country. What appeared early this week as a similar example of solid governmental pre-planning and execution in commencing evacuations of hurricane-threatened areas of southeast Texas has evolved now, with Rita's arrival less than 24 hours away, into a mini-disaster of its own with countless people made more vulnerable for having followed the instructions of public officials.

Continues a report in the Chronicle:

Chief among the complaints is that officials at all levels didn't appreciate — or at least articulate — just how crowded roads would get.

Add to that the fact that the Texas Department of Transportation seemed flat-footed in effecting a contraflow plan to ease congestion by moving some outbound traffic into inbound lanes.

Why, some asked, didn't the agency time the lane reversals to coincide with the mandatory evacuations of low-lying neighborhoods and areas threatened by storm surge?

"Why wasn't TxDOT on the same page?" asked Houston City Councilman M.J. Khan, stuck for hours trying to get his elderly mother-in-law to the airport. "Yesterday morning, that should have been part of the plan."

TxDOT said its effort was hampered by the complicated nature of the task and a lack of personnel.

Officials also faced criticism because they didn't plan, or didn't plan adequately, for making sure enough gasoline was available for tens of thousands of vehicles crawling through summer heat.

"It has been completely predictable. You try to shove all that traffic onto a freeway system, and it ain't going to work. There's only so much roadway," said Bill King, a lawyer and former Kemah mayor who's long said the region wasn't adequately prepared for a large-scale evacuation.

"All this about the running out of gas? Well, duh," King said.

Sheer numbers surprising

Jack Colley, coordinator of the state emergency operations center, said the state evacuation plan included getting fuel to stranded motorists, but that the number of people coming out of Houston was a surprise.

"The number of people, the amount of cars, the amount of compliance with this (evacuation order), there's some things you can predict and some things you can't, that are unpredictable," Colley said. "We are compensating. They may run out of gas, but we're going to get them gas."

This is an upended exodus that may, in time, when the post mortem is completed, result in the exodus of some elected officials. It's all about execution and accountability, and, scandously, hundreds of thousands of voters have been left stranded in their cars, many abandoning them along the roadside in utter frustration. And as horrific as conditions have been, the worst is still before them -- RITA.

In a lead editorial this morning, the Houston Chronicle describes what has been at least a partially-bungled evacuation.

Even so, the roads leaving Houston Thursday were as chaotic as the downtown streets were still. Freeways choked with travelers by Thursday morning, prompting Perry to order redirection of 130 miles of Interstate into a one-way highway. But by afternoon all traffic inland was virtually static.

Houston's transportation crisis was the converse of New Orleans': Houston-area residents own more than 2.7 million cars, and more than a million of these were used to evacuate. It will never be simple, or even possible, to evacuate every last person in a metropolis of almost 3 million. Perry and his planners must take Houston's car population into account for future crises by expanding outgoing highways far earlier and issuing more precise evacuation instructions for different areas.

The federal government, for its part, should have acted more quickly to counteract the failures of the commercial fuel industry.

Residents fleeing Houston by air had scarcely better luck than drivers. George Bush Intercontinental was mobbed, as anxious passengers inched through overwhelmed security checkpoints. The logjam, officials said, stemmed from absenteeism of about 100 employees from the Transportation Security Administration. According to CNN, an agency official said TSA knew about the situation and "anticipated it." But TSA's solution, importing personnel from other airports, should have been implemented days in advance.

Faced with such a snarlup before a natural disaster, government must be flexible and decisive enough to relax the rules. Bag check procedures should have been streamlined — the likelihood of passengers missing evacuation flights was greater than that of a sleeper cell seizing the moment for a hijacking.

While these evacuation glitches at the federal and state level will have to be corrected in the future, it is hard to fault the pre-disaster actions of the exhausted but businesslike mayor. It may turn out more Houstonians fled than strictly needed to — but few officials would want to urge families to take a risk. White's judgement will be tested further, though, when Rita makes landfall and inflicts her damage, and during the city's subsequent disaster relief effort and recovery. So far White has learned Katrina's lessons well.