There will be many questions asked over the next few weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. One that's being asked now is whether the inbound highway lanes could have been opened in a more timely manner that they were on Thursday.
The so-called contra-flow lane change, part of the state emergency plans, was implemented only Thursday morning, drawing criticism from frustrated motorists who ended up spending more than 24 hours on a drive that normally takes less than five hours.
Gov. Rick Perry said decisions were complicated by Rita's changing course over the past several days.
Early projections, which had it hitting between Houston and Corpus Christi, moved gradually north.
At one point, forecasters fingered the Houston area and its 4 million residents.
"Once Houston in particular was in the bull's-eye, if you will, then a decision had to be made, which Mayor [Bill] White and [Harris County] Judge [Robert] Eckels did appropriately and timely," Mr. Perry said.
"Being able to switch over that southbound lane of I-45 and I-10, it doesn't happen at the drop of a hat," he said.
Transportation Department officials have said they did not strongly consider converting highways to one-way traffic before this week.
That step had long been considered a last resort.
But the size of the evacuation led officials to reconsider. By midweek, highways leading north and west from Houston recorded traffic increases up to 339 percent.
"It became absolutely apparent that more had to be done," said Randall Dillard, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Closing highways to inbound traffic poses massive logistical challenges.
The transportation department estimates that about 130 entrance and exit ramps were barricaded along Interstates 45 and 10 and U.S. Highways 69 and 96.
The closures then had to be staffed with police or other officials to prevent motorists from driving around barricades and causing head-on collisions.
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."
I mean, most people went to work in Houston on Wednesday. Schools were open. I-45 South and I-10 East were being used as they normally are. There was a risk of cutting people off from their homes before they had a chance to get out. You could have tried doing all this at night, I guess, but at what risk to the people who were doing the actual work clearing the roads and blocking the entrance ramps? I don't buy it.
There's one more thing to keep in mind here, and that's even with the contraflow lanes, the traffic demand overwhelmed everything. I-45 didn't start to move for us until we were north of Conroe, and that was only because people started to pull off the road. North of FM1488 (the original starting point for the I-45 contraflow) there's only two lanes on each side. It's that narrowing from six to four, and earlier from eight or nine to six, which will always cause bottlenecks. (And that doesn't take into account other choke points, such as the junction at US59, which is also two lanes on each side.) Unless you're willing to start evacuating several days sooner, and to enforce a south-to-north priority pattern (think of a church exiting one pew at a time, from front to back), you're always going to have more cars than the roads can handle.
That doesn't mean that we have to accept what happened as inevitable or the best we can do. I agree with Rick Casey that a full after-action review is called for, and I agree with Stace that we could have done a lot better ensuring there was enough gasoline for the evacuees. On this point, though, I'm okay with the decisions that were made.Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 25, 2005 to Hurricane Katrina | TrackBack