Late last month, highway and public safety workers set up barricades along Interstate 37 between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Their objective: to reverse the flow of southbound lanes to provide a hypothetical escape route for thousands of people fleeing a fictional hurricane.
In six hours, the 240 workers cleared the stretch and reversed its traffic flow, which would have allowed more Nueces County residents to flee north ahead of the “storm.”
The drill, part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s annual hurricane season preparations, went off without a hitch, according to Gilbert Jordan, TxDOT’s emergency management coordinator. However, it was also the first time many of these responders had practiced setting up the contraflow lanes. Jordan said it was the first full-scale exercise in at least three years.
Hurricane season, which began June 1, extends to Nov. 30. The drill was the end result of months of planning between the department and leaders from coastal communities. TxDOT pointed to the drill and other measures it is enacting, such as an increased push into social media, as evidence of its readiness for the 2012 hurricane season.
Jordan said that the contraflow plans are generally practiced on paper, but this year TxDOT decided to put the plan into practice as thoroughly as possible. Though no traffic was actually reversed, a patrol car traveled down the southbound lane to clear traffic, and workers and barricades were deployed at every exit along the 142-mile stretch of highway.
“Some drivers definitely thought there were some VIPs going though,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that had an actual reversal been ordered, the process may have been completed faster than six hours, because local leaders would have more authority to muster responders and resources.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “But we haven’t been tested.”
The only time Texas highways utilized contraflow lanes was during Hurricane Rita in 2005. Interstate 45, Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 290 were all reversed as 2.5 million to 3.7 million people fled before Rita hit land. It was one of the largest mass evacuations in U.S. history.
The combination of gridlock caused by the evacuation and a significant heat wave led to dozens of deaths during the Rita evacuations.
By the time all lanes of traffic were opened to evacuees fleeing north, I-45 was already gridlocked. Some people moved just 10 or 20 miles over the course of nine hours, and others sensed futility and turned around to wait out the storm. As gas stations along the route ran out of fuel, stranded drivers were left to swelter in 100-degree heat.
As Hurricane Ike approached in 2008, officials planned to use contraflow lanes but canceled them as the storm changed course and traffic remained steady. The differences between the two evacuations showed how much the state had learned between the two storms, said Phil Bedient, the director of Rice University’s Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuations for Disasters.
“They are, I think, better prepared now than they were in 2005,” Bedient said. “We learned from Rita how to do evacuations.”
When Ike came around three years later, said Bedient, “we learned how to do evacuations successfully.” None of the 37 known deaths attributed to Ike were related to the evacuations.
Houston and Harris County are also much more prepared to handle a hurricane evacuation than it was in 2005, according to Mark Sloan, the Harris County emergency management coordinator.
“Things have dramatically improved since the events,” Sloan said.
Sloan said people's responses to Rita and Ike showed that it was local government that needed to be more prepared, because residents largely responded in the ways they were asked to.
“When we said they should evacuate during Rita, they did that,” Sloan said. “When we said they should hunker down during Ike, they did that, too.”
Sloan attributed some of the issues of the 2005 evacuation to it being the first time the state enacted its mandatory evacuation laws. Since then, he said, cities have been able to clarify and refine their storm plans — allowing for more controlled evacuations, like the ones completed during Ike, and for greater confidence in the success of future similar events.
Following an investigation of the Rita evacuations, Gov. Rick Perry ordered changes to the state’s mass evacuation plans. The executive order included the establishment of regional command centers to improve control and communication during an evacuation, as well as more detailed plans for the evacuation of people with special needs, and for fuel availability and distribution, traffic control and public awareness.
In the years since Rita, TxDOT says it has improved its hurricane response plans by updating its contraflow plans, preparing more safety rest areas along evacuation routes to make water and ice available, and increasing the number of patrol cars and wreckers along evacuation routes.
“The agency is committed to three guiding goals — getting people out of harm’s way, getting them home safely and providing assistance with cleanup and recovery,” TxDOT spokeswoman Penny Mason said in an email.
Jordan, the emergency management coordinator, said that this year’s drill provided useful feedback. Though it was run in ideal weather conditions, his team still had difficulties with radio communication. As a result, there are now plans to equip an airplane with a radio repeater, which would negate the problem of radio towers downed by high winds in the middle of a storm.
Jordan said that there could be a test of the contraflow system in other parts of the state this year, including I-45 out of Houston.
Along with constantly evaluating its evacuation plans, the department is working on increasing the number of ways it can communicate emergency information — particularly by using social media. The department currently has 41 Twitter accounts providing updates based on geographic area. Its largest account, @TxDOT, was created in October 2008 and has more than 11,000 followers. Its Facebook page has more than 6,000 fans.
This year, the department says its Tweets will carry storm-related hashtags to allow Twitter users to follow updates quickly and easily.
In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the outlook for this year’s hurricane season average, with nine to 15 named storms expected, of which eight could become hurricanes and up to three could become major hurricanes.