Hurricane lessons: how to flee - and come back

Prestorm traffic jams in Houston have caused cities to reevaluate their emergency evacuation plans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hilliard Smith tried to get out of Houston on Thursday, two days before hurricane Rita was scheduled to hit. But after six hours on a car-choked freeway and with his gas tank quickly running dry, he turned around. The 20-mile return trip took him 15 minutes.

"In the next evacuation, I think they should make sure there is enough gas and keep the gas stations open as long as possible," he says, filling his pickup truck at a northwest Houston station the day that sector was being allowed back in.

Although in the end Houston missed the brunt of the Category 3 storm, the lessons learned about how to evacuate a city the size of Rhode Island will reverberate for some time. In fact, the chaos and frustration that arose from the evacuations of both New Orleans and Houston have caused public officials in large cities across the nation to reconsider their own emergency evacuation plans.

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"There are lessons that can be learned," says Tricia Wachtendorf, a professor at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. "Obviously, we'd like to see those traffic delays reduced.... But [the evacuation] was a success in being able to move that number of people - despite the delays."

An estimated 3 million residents in southeast Texas - 2.5 million from the Houston/Galveston area alone - fled as Rita approached. Both Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, for instance, say they now know that a large number of residents will evacuate when asked - and any improvements to evacuation plans must take that into consideration.

Crucial for the next emergency will be making sure there is an adequate supply of gasoline along evacuation routes, local officials say, and improving coordination between state and local agencies - especially when making decisions to turn entire freeways into giant, one-way exits. Those lessons could apply to other cities.

"A lot of the suggestions that have emerged from local officials seem to be good ones, things like having fueling areas and reverse traffic flows," Professor Wachtendorf says.

Having gotten people out, state officials face the challenge of letting them back in. Hoping to avoid the same freeway logjams, they are asking residents to return in staggered waves. Houston officials have requested that city dwellers stay away as long as possible while power is restored and debris cleared. Schools are not reopening until midweek so people won't feel the need to rush home.

But some are disregarding the advice and heading home anyway. They are finding the roads surprisingly easy to navigate.

Worried from their 11-hour trip to Austin last Wednesday, John Puckett left early the morning after Rita hit to try to make the 160-mile trip back to Houston. It took only four hours. His wife, Cecile, and newborn baby came home a day later.

Public officials did the best they could with a difficult situation, says Ms. Puckett, cradling her son. "But no matter how much planning you do, when people begin to panic, it's really hard to regulate that."

Or predict. People don't typically evacuate three days before a storm hits, says Michael Lindell, a professor in the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. In Rita's case, the plans were to have Galveston residents leave first, with those north of the island following later. But even those who weren't under mandatory evacuations left - and left early.

"People were spooked by hurricane Katrina, and understandably so," says Dr. Lindell. "It was not only a national news story, but with so many evacuees in Houston, it became very salient to people here. That's the reason why everybody decided to be very cautious."

Resident David Frankfort admits he and his family overreacted. They left Houston at 3:30 a.m. Thursday to avoid the traffic and spent 7-1/2 hours in the car before reaching Austin. He calls the evacuation "flawless. Gas shortages and traffic jams were a small price to pay to evacuate more than 2 million people from this area," says Mr. Frankfort, as he rakes up the branches that fell around his yard.

Lindell also calls the evacuation successful: "In the past, the National Hurricane Center or other storm experts have had to call mayors and governors and browbeat them into evacuating." They hesitate, in part, because emptying cities is expensive for business and government.

On an overpass overlooking Interstate 45 in Conroe, Texas State Trooper Mike Franklin eyes the steady stream of traffic flowing back into the Houston area and wonders about the next time.

"Many people left completely unprepared for the trip ahead," he says. "Will they learn from this experience?"

While urban officials look for ways to improve their own evacuation plans, they're also encouraging individuals to be more prepared. In Los Angeles, for example, officials were discussing measures such as urging people to have an emergency pack, including water, pop-top canned food, medications, and first aid, says Linda Bourque, a disaster expert who teaches at the Universtiy of California at Los Angeles. "Very basic essentials, and you encourage people to have one of these for every person in the household."

Alexandra Marks contributed to this report.

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