There’s no way to be 100 percent ready for the unpredictable power of a hurricane. But three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one thing is certain — this time, Texans were better prepared.
The 2005 disaster Rita caused in southeast Texas was only amplified by the chaos of evacuation. Tens of thousands of Houstonians were stranded on the road for hours with no water and no gas. Shortly after the 2005 hurricane season ended, Governor Rick Perry formed a task force on evacuation transportation and logistics, bringing together members of many public and private agencies with the goal of finding ways to improve the evacuation process. Russell Henk, a senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI), was one member of the task force. It was Henk who first suggested that phased evacuation plans be organized and announced by zip code.
“The task force made specific recommendations that were wide ranging and included plans for a more orderly evacuation that people could understand better than past efforts,” says Henk. “From what I’ve been able to tell, the zip code plan worked well during Hurricane Ike. The color-coded maps from pre-Rita evacuation plans were not well understood by the public. But everyone knows their zip code.”
The task force consulted with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Division of Emergency Management (DEM). It also held public hearings across the state. The feedback from these activities helped form new hurricane response strategies, including giving pets family member status that allows them to be evacuated alongside their owners. Tailored education-outreach materials about hurricane preparedness and evacuation routes are disseminated using the new zip code approach. This information was sent with electric bills, providing a cost-effective means for giving citizens appropriate and updated information to help them protect their families. The task force, along with DEM and TxDOT, also worked with the oil and gas industry to keep evacuation routes “wet,” or supplied with gas. Buses were pre-staged and standing by to evacuate at-risk and special-needs residents. Cities receiving these individuals were ready with housing and supplies.
TxDOT developed formal contra-flow plans to prevent a standstill in the event of another mass evacuation. Dynamic message signs reminded motorists to avoid traveling to affected areas and gas stations that were low on fuel. TxDOT also refined their “buddy” district system, which matches inland districts with coastal districts to provide support personnel. In the inland districts, personnel waited on the perimeter for the storm to pass and then worked around the clock, clearing the roads for emergency personnel and families returning to survey the damage.
“The important thing for everyone to remember is when it’s hurricane season, be prepared,” says Carlos Lopez, traffic operations director for TxDOT. “Keep your gas tank filled, and be ready to leave or shelter in place as directed by your local officials.”
With a small break before the 2009 season begins, transportation officials have changes to consider based on the lessons learned during Ike. But the teamwork and infrastructure that made the difference will remain in place.
“The success with Hurricane Ike is a product of the good planning from the Governor’s Task Force and the hard work and cooperation among TxDOT, DPS and DEM in implementing a number of new practices,” says Henk. “TTI assisted with various planning activities.”