February 21, 2006
Hurricane Task Force recommendations
Governor Perry's task force on What We Learned From Those Nasty Hurricanes Last Year has presented its recommendations.
Texas can best manage future disasters by vesting the governor with the power to order mandatory evacuations, a task force recommended Monday.
The task force was convened by Gov. Rick Perry to address the lessons learned from Hurricane Rita. Its report said a single, well-informed official could best coordinate an efficient evacuation of multiple cities, counties and regions. During Rita, some coastal residents turned back when the freeways leading from Houston were jammed with fleeing inland residents.
Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, the officials most involved in the evacuation of millions of coastal residents from Rita, appeared with Perry on Monday to endorse the plan.
"More than anything, this is a great starting point," Eckels said.
After holding six public hearings across the state, the task force made 21 recommendations to Perry in five areas: command and control; evacuation of people with special needs; fuel availability along evacuation routes; gridlock elimination; and public awareness.
The task force recommended the state direct licensed and unlicensed special-needs facilities to create and maintain evacuation plans, and designate a state agency to ensure compliance.
The task force report also recommends the Texas Department of Transportation work with industry to create a plan to ensure fuel is available along evacuation routes. After Rita struck, White called it "totally unacceptable" that the state failed to provide fuel along the evacuation routes.
The panel also called on TxDOT to develop contraflow traffic plans for nine highways and interstates leading away from coastal areas, including I-10, I-45, U.S. 290 and U.S. 59.
Lots to digest here. I suppose the advantage of putting the Governor in charge of evacuations is that he or she can (theoretically, at least) ensure that coastal regions are given a head start on places like Houston. That was a big bone of contention for cities like Kemah, whose mayor is quoted in a mostly approving fashion later in the story. You can't stop people from heading for the hills, but you can order some people to get moving sooner than others. That ought to help.
I think the biggest challenge in developing a contraflow traffic plan is that you have to implement it from the outer areas in. With enough manpower and the right communications equipment, you could do an awful lot of this simultaneously. We may some day have the equipment, but having the manpower will be a huge obstacle.
Guess I'm going to need to hunt down a copy of this report and see if it's all high-level blue-sky stuff, or if they actually get into some logistics. I don't think there's anything wrong with what they're saying, I'm just not sure how doable some of it is, and I'm not sure how expensive it all would be. Within reason, whatever the expenditure is would be worthwhile (and hey, what a good time to have a budget surplus, right?), but I daresay the spirit will be willing but the flesh will be weak. We'll see what eventually gets proposed to the Lege.
Parting thought: Does Perry add any of this to the special session call, or does he wait till 2007 and hope we have a milder hurricane season this summer?
UPDATE: See Eric Berger's comment below for more information on the report and Governor Perry's likely course of action.
Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 21, 2006 to Hurricane Katrina
The gulf is running 4 degress hotter than normal. More heat energy equals more energy for bigger storms. Perry would be a fool or worse to expect a milder hurricane season.
The report is somewhat light on logistics. Essentially, it delegates the actual planning and decision making to organizations like the Texas Department of Transportation. It is they who will take the "recommendations" and try to work out the logistics.
In regards to a public session, at the presser yesterday Perry explicity said school finance was his highest priority, and hurricane matters wouldn't come up during a special session until such school finance legislation was on his desk, and signed.
Keep up the good work.
A few thoughts:
First, we are likely to have a "milder" hurricane season this summer, but only because last year's season was a record-setter! "Milder" doesn't necessarily mean "mild." As the first commenter noted, "mild" hurricane seasons may become a rarity for the foreseeable future.
Second, I noted this sentence with a bit of irony: "... a single, well-informed official could best coordinate an efficient evacuation of multiple cities, counties and regions."
So why on Earth did they recommend putting that power in Perry's hands? A better idea might be for the Guv to appoint a "disaster czar," or even to create a Texas version of FEMA (TEMA?) Of course, it would help if Perry did a better job on such appointments than Bush has done at the Federal level; with the GOP running the state, I'm not sure how to get there from here.
Third, there is the question of money. Again, with the GOP running the state, etc.
Finally, none of this gets to the question of how to avoid mass panic. As you noted yourself, "You can't stop people from heading for the hills, but you can order some people to get moving sooner than others." The problem is, as soon as you "order some people to get moving," others are likely to follow of their own accord, thus risking a Rita-style gridlock no matter when the evacuation order is given. Since the gridlock contributed to deaths on its own, starting it earlier is of no obvious advantage.
I don't have an answer for that problem; I'm just saying letting Perry give mandatory evacuation orders is unlikely to solve it.
Chuck, I think some may be getting a little too wrapped around the axle with this report evaluating it from too much of a Rick Perry-centric point of view.
I think it is reasonable to suggest that a single person needs to be charged with making decisions like evacuation planning and since it is likely to involve more than one county, the next highest level executive, i.e. the state governor is the logicial choice to bear that responsibility.
As to establishment of contraflow plans, I don't see why this is such a hard nut to crack.
In the interim, there seem to be a couple of reasonable options. For decades the Air Force has used prefab mats in order facilitate rapid runway repair. If such a method could be used to restore an airfield to operational status capable of combat aircraft in hours, I don't see why these mats could not be used to cross a median to establish contraflow. Likewise the state could have a standing contract with a road contractors to rapidly build crossovers.
Longer term the construction of permanent crossover lanes (like the HOV access points on the Katy or SW freeways) should be part of the plan.
Then it's just a matter of diverting all the traffic to the coast off the main arteries, sending some outriders to make sure the road is clear and opening the switch points.
You mentioned a concern about manpower and that's legitimate. Local law enforcement and TxDOT officials would be stretched. I would think this would be a great mission for a Texas National Guard units, specifically an MP and an engineering unit.
They really need to beef up the availablity of fuel along the routes. Late in our flight to San Antonio, we heard reports of some helpful TxDOT gas trucks, but the operative word there is "late".
Overall, although I am loathe to do this too frequently, I must agree with Judge Eckels in his assessment that this is a good starting point.
Charles, please delete from Lanier comments as more appropriate here.
I understand that the non-politicized Coast Guard performed their rescue missions very well, with no waiting for permission to hold up their important work. Increase their budgets and have them at the table to inform officials in their planning.
Texas must hire James Lee Witt, an expert in emergency civil defense from natural disasters.
Louisianna hired him to help post Katrina and Rita. And, he was head of a non-politicized FEMA when expertise was valued.
Witt should consult with our own real experts, to review again an action plan, time-tables to give to Perry so he, the Transportation Department, and mayors will do it right. And, to give to us Texans so that we do it right--what best to do and what to expect from best case and worst case scenarios (Rita wasn't it). And the care to save people and pets.
EXPERTS ARE NEEDED.