Why we left

The Chronicle does a poll about the Rita evacuation.

If a Category 4 hurricane had a bead on Houston, 62 percent would leave — a slightly higher percentage than actually did flee ahead of Rita, according to the poll.


“You would have thought that people who had spent more than 10 hours on the road, would say, ‘This is crazy, I won’t do it again,’ ” said Bob Stein of Rice University, who conducted the poll along with Richard Murray of the University of Houston. “When the hurricane doesn’t hit and doesn’t do a lot of damage, people reconsider evacuating. But people don’t have any regrets.”

The poll is consistent with official estimates that about 2.5 million people left the area, Stein said.

About 70 percent of those who left were afraid of the storm — fearing for their safety from wind and flooding — as Rita seemed poised for a near-direct hit. Only one in five listed evacuation orders as the primary motivation for taking flight, according to the poll of residents in Harris and seven adjacent counties.

Yep, that’s why we left. And yes, we’d do it again.

Sixty-two percent of people living in Rita evacuation areas left, compared with 42 percent not living in those areas.

But Stein said his analysis of poll responses showed that people who left non-evacuation zones feared the hurricane’s effects slightly more than those who left more vulnerable areas.

“If you were in an evacuation zone you accept that risk and don’t assess it as very high,” he said. People who live in Galveston, for example, may accept higher risks in exchange for enjoying the island city’s seaside amenities.

Officials requested residents in storm surge areas to leave their homes on Wednesday, Sept. 21. About a third who evacuated heeded the warning then and hit the road.

That evening’s forecast, the most ominous of the week, brought a larger response: More than half who evacuated left Thursday.

Almost half of the evacuees said they stayed in caravans of more than one car, a factor that likely contributed to the traffic congestion. Thirty percent who said they left with three companions or fewer — a group that could have fit into most cars — left in multiple vehicles, according to the poll.

“People in the most vulnerable areas clearly anticipated their cars, like their homes, would be at risk,” Stein said. “It’s suggestive of people taking their cars, not because they had a lot of people to protect, but because they were taking their second-most valuable possession.”

Half of the evacuees headed for small towns in Texas. Dallas and Austin were the next-most popular destinations.

So most people left on Thursday, many of them went to Dallas, and many of them were in multi-car caravans. Yeah, that would explain why traffic sucked.

Bottom line, as I’ve said before: Any reevaluation of the evacuation plan must take into account the fact that more people will leave than you expect. Take any approach you want to that problem, from staging the evacuation differently to opening contraflow lanes more quickly to trying to convince some people to not leave, but expect the roads to be fuller than you think.

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5 Responses to Why we left

  1. Tim says:

    And a corollary to the lesson is: Even though it seems premature to leave three days ahead of time because of how the track may (and probably will) change, IF IT DOESN’T and you stay assuming it will change, it’s probably too late to get out.

    And Wednesday night’s 10 PM update before Rita hit showed the center of the projected path right over Galveston, with winds of 175 MPH which, though sure to weaken as it got closer, is still likely a Cat 4 at landfall. In every potential hurricane scare there’s pretty much a “decision point” beyond which you’re pretty much committed to staying. I thought 175 MPH and the center’s path at Galveston was that decision point.

    Obviously, had we waited 24 hours, we wouldn’t have evacuated…but if the forecast didn’t change, even this far inland, we could have been screwed, at the very least without power for a few days (and perhaps even without a roof).

  2. Why we left

    Why we left

  3. Jeb says:

    The other thing that local governments need to consider is to provide people with free parking in elevated parking garages so that people can leave their second cars where they know that the cars will not be flooded, keeping those cars off of the roads. A friend left their Miata on the levee in Port Arthur along with other cars, and it weathered Rita just fine.

  4. Steve Bates says:

    Somehow, “Drove my Miata to the levee” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But I drive a Chevy…

    Seriously, we made a firm decision, three days before Rita arrived, not to evacuate, based on the best information we had, including our location and our structure’s survival of previous storms, and the fact that the places to which we could have evacuated were considerably less weather-worthy. Every morning after that, I awakened terrified that we had made the wrong decision. Would I evacuate next time, knowing what I know now? I don’t know; it would be a whole new decision.

    As usual, the discussion centers on people who own homes. For many people, their cars are their most valuable possession, not their second most valuable. And as difficult as it may be to imagine, there are Houstonians without access to cars. If evacuation is mandatory, or even highly advisable, city, county and state plans should consider those people. They are not less deserving than homeowners.

  5. Stace says:

    I left on Thursday in a multi-car caravan. Unlike the explanation, all three of our vehicles were packed to the max. No, not with people, but with supplies: water, clothing, canned goods, foods, water, 2 cats in a cage, 2 LARGE barrels of water, enough supplies for a week.

    We planned well and were in need of even more space. And we are also the helping kind. If someone needed help, we knew we could jump in and help. So I don’t regret the three cars. What is regrettable is the lack of contraflow on I-10 till 1PM on Thursday–and that only happened because drivers got fed up and not because Rick Perry woke up!

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