Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hurricane Rita and Evacuation Thoughts

Here at Ten Ring Central, Bill and I have been following Hurricane Rita news. Bill has relatives in Houston: a sister and her family and his parents. His father and mother are in north Houston in a secure place and his sister got to Dallas. Her family spent 22 hours on the road; it's usually a four to five hour trip. Barring something truly unexpected, Bill's family will come out fine. I hope all of our readers can say the same.

Seeing Houston's gridlock made we wonder if evacuating a big city is a pipe dream. My job includes a little contingency planning and business continuity from a certain viewpoint, so I have some training in thinking about such things.

I lived in Houston for awhile and it would seem to be an ideal city to evacuate except for its size. It's flat for the most part, roads are plentiful and in good repair, there are no bottlenecks like having one bridge into and out of the city, etc. The many ways out of town include interstates like I-45, I-10, and highways like 59 and 290. Side roads also can get you out of town easily if you know how to navigate them.

Despite these advantages, Houston still had a gridlock so serious that people could have been on the highways during Hurricane Rita (this may yet be true). Cars ran out of gas, gas stations ran out of fuel, there were accidents, breakdowns, and bad planning. I heard on the radio that National Guard fuel tankers were dispatched to fill stranded cars, but their nozzles wouldn't fit a car's fuel inlet.

The only conclusion I can come to is our cities have become too damn big.

Here in the Northeast, my colleauges and I wondered how Boston would evacuate. One co-worker suggested commuter rail, which would have certain advantages, but many problems. Is there enough rolling stock, are their adequate staging areas to assemble, hold, and move many trains through basically all at once? Further, how would people get to the train stations with at least some belongings, could the stations handle untold thousands of people all at once? No, we concluded there would be gridlock in Boston, just a little different.

I just don't see any good solutions when one of our mega-cities is threatened. In the case of Rita, Houston and Galveston had plenty of warning and many people even left early, but there was still dramatic and potentially dangerous gridlock. What would happen if there were a sudden, unexpected event such as a dirty bomb exploding?

A dirty bomb's damage would be slight and it's radiation cloud small, but people would still want to flee. One can't stay at home because radiation might kill you, an ad hoc shelter even if safe from radiation would turn into a Superdome nightmare, and sudden evacuation would lead to worse problems than we saw in Houston. Given the examples of Houston and New Orleans, if I were a city disaster planner, I'd quit my job and take up flipping hamburgers.

I'm so glad I live in New Hampshire and in a small town at that. I only wish I didn't have to work near Boston.

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