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« RITA: Houston Returning To Normal. | WILLisms.com | Quotational Therapy: Part 47 -- Barry Goldwater, On Freedom. »

Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 177 -- No Comparable Evacuation In History.

The Evacuation Of Houston, Texas-

Texas was ready.

So many Texans were even thinking it after Katrina:

"BRING IT ON. We can handle it. Just let us prove it."

Texas missed the big one, and there will certainly be lessons for next time, but the evacuation of Houston, Texas was nothing short of spectacular. And I am confident the relief and recovery efforts would have been the same.

Just to put the evacuation of Houston in perspective, think about this:

There exists no comparable evacuation effort in world history. Texas safely evacuated approximately 2.7 million people – equivalent of the population of Kansas – in harm’s way in 36 hours. By comparison:

* Berlin Air Lift – evacuated 177,000 people and moved 2.3 million tons of cargo over 11 months
* Three Mile Island - 200,000 evacuated
* Chernobyl - 135,000 evacuated

Using the world’s largest commercial airliner, the Boeing 747 which typically can carry 400 passengers, it would have taken 6,750 capacity flights to move 2.7 million people. There are roughly 1,000 Boeing 747s in existence, less than 15 percent of the needed capacity.

In other words, there was no simple answer, here.

Some folks complained that Texas' aversion to commuter rail, and our preference for mega-highways, proved to be some sort of Achilles heel. If only we had some rail, we could have moved all of those 2+ million people efficiently and without any of that telegenic gridlock.

Hmm. I don't think I need to do the math on that one, do I? The number of rail cars and tracks necessary for such an evacuation is staggering. And, meanwhile, what do you do about people wanting to take stockpiles of food and supplies, or their firearms, or their furniture and photo albums and other household items, or their pets, or their cars themselves, all out of harms way? Do they all get to ride the choo-choo, too?

Come on.

And the ticket situation gets complicated. And then there's the people going to stay with grandma-- who doesn't drive-- in Small Town, U.S.A. Does the train really go there, too?

Get real. High-speed rail might be a viable (and maybe even profitable) form of transportation between Texas cities one day, but as for today, get real people. Get real.

Some people complained about the "contra-flow" being too little, too late. Well, the contra-flow is a mammoth undertaking itself:

During the evacuation, TxDOT contra-flowed 400 miles of highway. Some 250 miles of interstate leaving Houston was contra-flowed by 1 p.m. on Thursday - a full 36 hours before the hurricane landed. This entailed placing more than 100 highway barriers and sending 1,299 troopers to the southeast part of Texas, or 35 percent of all 3,700 commissioned DPS officers statewide.

Contra-flow was not some fun little game. It was a massive undertaking. In a little pow-wow outside my house on Thursday afternoon, one of my neighbors complained about the contra-flow not happening on Highway 59 running SW out of Houston.

Seriously? At that point, Rita still could have wobbled her way SW of Houston.

Contra-flow is a serious undertaking, not something you can snap on and off. It was ordered plenty early. And let's all remember that the roads were entirely clear, clearer than usual, with many, many hours to spare.

I mean, seriously, people, get a grip.

Like a run on a bank, you can't really stop groupthink. There aren't a lot of great public policy strategies, or private sector responses, for lemmings behaving out of the ordinary in a time of potential crisis, especially one that is following a recent and real crisis.

Similarly, people running out of gasoline was unfortunate. It is possible that we'll see some sort of last-resort system in place for future evacuations of major cities to get stranded vehicles gasoline. Maybe we'll see fuel tankers staged along evacuation routes in advance.

But let's remember that Houston was also burgeoning from Katrina evacuees. Hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe 1/3 of the cars we spotted heading East on I-10 toward Beaumont on Thursday had Louisiana plates.

Let's also remember those images of Katrina. Even without New Orleans-style flooding, many Houstonians did not want to be left behind in any sort of Mad Max landscape, with no utilities, no food, no nothing. So people who shouldn't have left, left.

All of those extra people on the road, and a very small proportion ran out of gas. And nobody remained stranded with their vehicles for too long, and certainly not as the storm approached.

And you can't blame people for topping their vehicles off with gas, even when they didn't need it, but that was a major part of the problem.

The typical daily consumption of gasoline for the entire Houston area is roughly 531,000 gallons. Exxon Mobil alone delivered that much gas to just 14 locations on Saturday alone. Clearly people were filling up, topping off, and otherwise doing things they wouldn't normally do. Just like a run on a bank.

Strange, unpredictable group psychology led to the gas shortages, more than an any actual lack of preparedness:

Gasoline retail purchases since the storm are up by 40 percent, said Shell Oil Co. President John Hofmeister, but the average size of the transaction was down by 50 percent. That means people are topping off their tanks, the last thing they should do in a situation like this.

So you had this perfect storm leading to gas shortages. But think about this very underreported fact:

...more than 25,000 gallons [of gas were] dispensed directly to over 5,000 stranded motorists.

A brilliant response. And I can attest that we did not see any stranded vehicles on the road Saturday morning heading back to our house. They had all been removed from the side of the road. Rescued, presumably. And that doesn't even include all the civilian "sheepdogs" we saw bringing gas cans to stranded motorists on Friday.

And where was all the price gouging? I didn't see any. In fact, to the extent gas was available, it was cheaper than usual.

Meanwhile, for having so many people moving all at once like that, I expected dozens of separate deaths from wrecks and heat stroke, etc.

The only fatalities had very little to do with the actual evacuation and more to do with flukish, tragic accidents. A woman slipping and hitting her head after spending the night in a car wash. A bus full of elderly folks in Dallas fanning those explosive flames with their oxygen tanks. Both sad events. But it is astounding how safe and sound this evacuation really was.

Was it frustrating? Yeah. But that had more to do with the hurricane itself and the disruption to the normal routine of life than anything else.

Let's hope we don't have to do it ever again, but at least now we know we can do it.


Previous Trivia Tidbit: Gas taxes.

Posted by Will Franklin · 26 September 2005 07:53 AM


Justifiably proud of the Lone Star State, I see. "Hook 'em 'Horns!"

Posted by: Giacomo at September 26, 2005 11:29 AM

I needed that.
I also linked to pass it on.

You're a great iconoclast. When you break something on purpose, all the king's men won't put it together again.

Posted by: Hootsbuddy at September 26, 2005 07:59 PM