By ERIN McCLAM, AP National Writer
It was envisioned as the anti-Katrina plan: Texas officials sketched a
staggered, orderly evacuation plan for Hurricane Rita and urged people
to get out days ahead of time. Busses will leave at these times from
these places, police officers will change road lanes at certain times,
etc. Everything was going to work nearly perfect.
But tangles still arrived even before the storm's first bands. As
everyone waited for the hurricane yet to arrive, panicked drivers ran
out of gas, a spectacular, a deadly bus fire clogged traffic, and
freeways were red rivers of taillights that stretched to the horizon.
In an age of terrorist danger and with memories of the nightmare in
New Orleans still fresh, the Texas exodus raises a troubling question:
Can any American city empty itself safely and quickly?
Thousands of drivers remained stranded Friday to the north and west of
Houston. Many were stuck in extreme heat, out of gas -- as gas trucks,
rumored to be on the way, or at least buses to evacuate motorists,
They were frustrated, angry and growing desperate, scattered and
stranded across a broad swath of the state as the monster storm bore
"It's been terrible, believe me," said Rosa Castro, who had driven
more than 17 hours by Friday. Her sister behind the wheel, seven
children in tow, the car was idling on less than an eighth of a tank
Castro was hoping to get gas from a lone Shell station that had opened
north of Houston. But her car was at the end of a miles-long line.
"I wondered why so many people in Katrina didn't move in time, and now
I'm in the same situation," she said. "All I have is cash, clothes and
Houston is a landlocked city, an hour's drive from the Gulf of Mexico.
Besides Houston's 4 million people fleeing, as many as 2 million were
trying to get out through Houston from the coastal side.
In Galveston County along the Gulf, authorities set up three
evacuation zones, beginning Wednesday evening and staggered at
eight-hour intervals, with the most outlying areas to be the first to
leave. But people in all three zones left early anyway, further
From Houston, the main roads out of town -- Interstate 10 to San
Antonio, I-45 to Dallas, and U.S. Highway 290 to Austin -- were turned
into one-way thoroughfares only Thursday, and even then the one-way
flow began well outside Houston.
"There were some weaknesses," Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee , a
Democrat, acknowledged to KTRK-TV on Friday. "We could have fixed some
of the elements ... a fuel truck that works, a mechanical system that
works, and opening the contraflow," the term emergency officials use
for routing all lanes in one direction.
Later in the day, Jackson Lee told The Associated Press the state
should have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for
supplies. "I'm marching people all over looking for gasoline," she
Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Friday decision to order one-way
flow came after the storm, originally on a track south of Houston,
changed course and headed toward Houston instead.
"It's not perfect," he said. "I wish I could wave a magic wand and
somehow transport people magically from Houston, Texas, to Dallas or
other points, but that's not the fact when you have the type of
congestion that you see in the state of Texas on a daily basis."
He added: "I think when you look behind later, it will be almost
miraculous that this many people were moved out of harm's way."
State emergency management coordinator Jack Colley said 2.5 million to
2.7 million Texans had already been moved out of harm's way, and the
governor said 25 buses would canvass Beaumont, looking for people
still trying to get out.
By midday Friday, lanes were restored to normal traffic. County Judge
Robert Eckels said traffic had cleared and authorities needed lanes in
both directions for emergencies. Still, many remained stranded beyond
Before the late 1990s, emergency management officials were in charge
of evacuations, and transportation engineers had little interest.
But those engineers have devoted great energy to the problem since
Hurricane Georges forced an evacuation of New Orleans in 1998, and
Hurricane Floyd an evacuation of the Carolinas in 1999.
Rita and her hellish predecessor, Katrina, come in the new age of
terror, as authorities try to draw up plans for clearing out cities in
the event of deadly strikes with unconventional weapons.
Still, experts say the massive coastal zone that needs to be cleared
of people before a major hurricane is far larger than the area to be
evacuated after an industrial accident or a terror attack. And in this
case, there have been a couple days advance notice. What happens when
a terrorist attack gives people an hour's warning or less?
In the event of a nuclear accident, federal rules require the
evacuation of a 10-mile radius around the plant. After a so-called
"dirty bomb" nuclear detonation or the release of chemical or
biological weapons, only the region immediately downwind of the
release point would have to be cleared.
"Natural disasters just dwarf anything that's manmade," said Reuben B.
Goldblatt, a partner at traffic engineering firm KLD Associates in
Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State
University, said Texas officials "will probably see there were things
they could have done better."
But he added: "It's not economically or environmentally feasible to
build enough roads to evacuate a city the size of Houston in a short
time and with no congestion. It's just not going to happen."
It was a point all too clear to Bruce French, who left his home in
Clear Lake, Texas, early Thursday, and ran out of gas just past
Conroe, far short of his destination of Dallas. On Friday morning, he
was stranded, waiting for fuel.
"They're giving $10 worth of gas if you're on empty and $5 if you have
some," he said. "That's not going to get you very far."
EDITOR'S NOTE - Associated Press writers Kristen Hays in Houston, Liz Austin
in Austin and Suzanne Gamboa in Washington, National Writer Matt Crenson in
New York and photographer Paul Sancya contributed to this story.
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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