Thanks to some hard work and a lot of planning, the Hurricane Ike evacuation of tens of thousands of southeast Texans, including residents of Houston, was much different than the disastrous 2005 Hurricane Rita evacuation.
Russell Henk, a Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) senior research engineer, attributes much of the success to Governor Rick Perry’s Task Force on Evacuation Transportation and Logistics, of which Henk was a member. “Before the task force was formed, Houston had no real contra-flow plans. That’s one of the reasons the Rita evacuation turned out to be so chaotic,” Henk says.
The 2005 evacuation resembled a parking lot as residents along the coast converged on Houston escape routes, where half of all city residents were trying to flee at the same time. Running out of fuel and drinking water and enduring 100 degree temperatures, motorists were stalled for hours, with the typically 3-hour drive to San Antonio or Dallas taking 20+ hours.
“The task force made specific recommendations that were wide ranging and included plans for a more orderly evacuation,” Henk noted. It was Henk who recommended that evacuations take place based on coastal region zip codes, to be announced by the local news media. “From what I’ve been able to tell, the zip code plan worked well with Ike. The color-coded maps from pre-Rita evacuation plans were not well understood by the public. But everyone knows their zip code.” Increased use of buses as a mode for mobilizing those with special needs and improved pre-positioning of key resources for post-disaster response were other key components to the new plans that were enacted prior to Ike making landfall.
Before Rita slammed the Texas-Louisiana coast in 2005 as a category 3 storm, it had reached category 5 status. Ike, however, hit Galveston as a category 2. “A lot of effort by TTI staff and TxDOT went into the development of the detailed contra-flow plans that would be enacted if a hurricane were expected to come ashore at level 3 or higher,” Henk says. “We almost had to do that with Ike.”
The contra-flow plan expedites evacuations by allowing both sides of interstates and highways to move in a single direction away from the storm.