The statewide hurricane evacuation drill is going on this week, and so far we've learned that there's only so much you can do to keep the highways flowing.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, appointed as the incident commander for a 13-county evacuation region during this drill, said dumping 3 million evacuees onto the freeway system - even with contraflow lanes - will continue to jam evacuation routes but he predicted other improvements should make the trip less hazardous.
These improvements include such things as starting contraflow lanes sooner and making sure gas stations along the routes remain open and stocked.
Emergency responders at the Houston TranStar control center are particularly interested in how these proposed improvements will work. Harris County was the center of a massive traffic snarl when area residents fled Hurricane Rita eight months ago. Most of the 137 Rita-related deaths were later attributed not to the storm but to the evacuation itself.
"We want people to know what to expect when they get on the highway. We don't want them to think the trip to Dallas will only be four hours. But we also want to make sure there is fuel and rest stops along the way," Eckels said.
At the same time, authorities want to inform residents that they don't have to join the traffic jams if they live outside the storm surge areas that could become submerged by hurricane-force winds blowing water onto the shore. "If you live in Katy, Spring or Tomball, you may not need to make that 15- to 20-hour drive," Eckels said.
All of Galveston County and most of Chambers County are within the storm surge area if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane strikes. Only a section of Harris County lies within the surge zone, generally east of Loop 610 and south of Interstate 10 and a larger segment of Brazoria County that is south of Texas 35.
In addition, office of emergency management and homeland security coordinator Frank Gutierrez said, trains will be a factor in the next evacuation, especially of the sick and elderly.
"We're lining up all the passenger trains available that might be used (on the run from Galveston to Dallas). Each can hold up to 1,600 people," he said.
When hurricane season begins June 1, weather conditions such as warm ocean waters could produce some powerful storms, said Gene Hafele, Houston-Galveston National Weather Service meteorologist.
Colorado State University forecasters say nine hurricanes may form in the Atlantic basin that feeds the Gulf of Mexico this year. An average season sees only about five, he said.
However, he noted last year produced the most hurricanes of any season on record - 15 including seven that were major.