Vehicles jam the northbound lanes, right, of I-45 as the southbound lanes, left, are virtually empty in Houston, Texas, Sept. 22, 2005, as people from south Texas evacuate in advance of Hurricane Rita. (Source: FEMA)

Creating Disasters through Mass Urban Evacuation

A Man-Made Disaster

Is the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That is the question we need to consider.” — Representative Garnet Coleman

In 2005, the North Atlantic region experienced the busiest storm season recorded in history, with a record breaking 28 named storms. While Hurricane Katrina in September is the most memorable storm of that year, it was the threat of Hurricane Rita, just a few weeks later that triggered a disaster that contributed to the deaths of 107 people. With the devastation seen in New Orleans, elected officials in Galveston and Houston made the decision to evacuate their respective communities just days before Rita made landfall. The evacuation was the largest of its kind in any urban community in United States history, with an estimated 3.7 million people attempting to flee Rita’s path. The resulting gridlock of traffic left citizens on the roads for more than 20 hours, some sitting at a standstill for hours at a time in a Texas September heat wave, some stranded due to fuel shortages. After hours on the roads, some citizens opted to return to their homes to wait out the storm, feeling that they could not make it out in time. Post-analysis of the evacuation raised the feasibility of evacuating a community the size of Houston. While preparing your community for a hurricane, if the evacuation creates its own disaster, is evacuation still a good idea? In the aftermath of the evacuation, Garnet Coleman, the Democratic State Representative from Houston askedIs the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That is the question we need to consider.” This case study discusses the challenges that arose when public officials decided that a mass evacuation of a densely-populated region was necessary 3 days prior to Hurricane Rita making landfall in Texas and Louisiana.


Hurricane Katrina’s Impact on Houston

The impact of Hurricane Katrina was well known by residents in the Houston-metropolitan region. On September 1, just days after Katrina had devastated New Orleans, approximately 25,000 New Orleans residents were air lifted from the Louisiana Superdome to the Houston Astrodome and Reliant Center. An estimated 300,000 more Louisiana natives had evacuated under their own power to the Houston area. Houston would be their home for the next few weeks until Katrina victims could return home to Louisiana or could relocate elsewhere. By September 16th, those living within the Astrodome had been relocated, leaving only those still being housed within Reliant Center and the surrounding parking lots.

Thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees are temporarily housed in the Houston Astrodome (Source: FEMA)

On September 17th, Tropical Depression 18 formed in the Bahamas and was headed in a northwesterly path towards the United States. Within 18 hours, the depression had developed into Tropical Storm status and was officially named ‘Rita’. By September 20th when Rita reached Key West, Florida, the storm had been upgraded to Category 2. That same day, the remaining 976 Hurricane Katrina evacuees that were still being housed at the Reliant center were relocated to Arkansas due to the impending storm, thus being evacuated twice within a 3-week period.


The Decision to Evacuate Galveston and Houston

Once Rita entered the Gulf of Mexico on September 21st, it had been upgraded again to a Category 3 and was considered a major hurricane. Recently granted the power to force residents to evacuate, officials in Galveston County ordered a mandatory evacuation that day to begin at 6pm. House Bill 3111 enacted during the Texas’ 79th regular legislative session, amended Texas Government Code allowing a county judge or mayor the authority to order evacuations within their jurisdiction.

New Texas law allows officials to enforce mandatory evacuations (Credit: KXAN Austin News)

Prior to HB3111, local officials could declare a local state of disaster, but they could not order residents to leave their homes. Interestingly, the new law went into effect on September 1, 2005, just 3 weeks prior to Hurricane Rita. The region was the first to exercise the new law. Based upon state plans released to the public earlier in 2005, a zoned approach to evacuating the Brazoria, Galveston and Harris County region was implemented that scheduled people to evacuate according to the zone where they resided.

Harris County Evacuation Map

The plan also identified under what conditions each zone should evacuate, i.e. under which hurricane categories a zone should evacuate. For example, those residents in Zone A, along the Gulf of Mexico would evacuate under a Category 1 storm, where those in Zone C, closer in towards downtown Houston, would evacuate under a Category 4 storm. The scheduled times for each zone to leave were set well in advance of the storm’s predicted landfall. With Rita classified as a Category 3 when mandatory evacuations were announced, Zone A, which was Galveston Island, was clearly the most at risk and needed to be evacuated first. Evacuating the island was particularly problematic due to Interstate 45 being the only evacuation route available to traffic.


“Don’t wait, the time for waiting is over. Don’t follow the example of New Orleans and think that someone’s going to get you” — Houston Mayor Bill White

Evacuation Route Gridlock

While Galveston motorists were northbound on I-45 towards Houston, Mayor Bill White, Houston’s mayor ordered mandatory evacuations that same day as well urging citizens “Don’t wait, the time for waiting is over. Don’t follow the example of New Orleans and think that someone’s going to get you.

With mass evacuation underway, the major highways designated as evacuation routes became gridlocked for approximately 100 miles. By 3pm Mayor White revised his warnings, instructing those citizens that were not in one of the identified evacuation zones to stay home and follow the news; however, that message was delivered too late. Coupled with fuel shortages, lack of water and medical relief, a response disaster had been created. The Houston freeways were at a standstill. Houston Chronicle writer Eric Berger wrote, “state, county and city officials were unprepared” citing that the lack of contraflow lanes and no policies for making fuel available for the massive number of vehicles on the highways caused chaos.

Related Stories: Winds of blame still gusting in Rita’s wake

“state, county and city officials were unprepared” — Houston Chronicle writer Eric Berger

On September 22nd, local officials ordered all lanes of Interstate 45 to be used for outbound traffic. Redirecting traffic on a state highway requires execution by the Texas Department of Transportation. At the time of the order, there were no considerations in the state’s disaster plans for redirecting major roadway traffic, otherwise known as ‘contraflow’ traffic. TxDOT was not prepared to execute such a large-scale evacuation. Once Governor Perry ordered both Interstates 45 and 10 to be opened for contraflow traffic, this required significant effort to execute. A redirection of this magnitude required law enforcement and TxDOT officials to force southbound traffic off the highways and close off on-ramps to prepare the lanes for northbound traffic. Approximately 8 to 10 hours after Governor Perry’s order, the southbound lanes were opened to northbound evacuation traffic. By this time, people had spent an average 20 hours on the road.

Thousands of individuals evacuate Houston as Hurricane Rita approaches. Source: Public Domain

Emergency Resources Constrained

The behind the scenes story of the Hurricane Rita evacuation is the impact on local emergency services and the struggles to provide services during the height of the evacuation. Local 9–1–1 centers experienced congested telephone lines, both incoming and outgoing. The City of Sugar Land utilized a ‘reverse 9–1–1’ auto-dialer system to generate mass notification calls to area residents to encourage special needs populations to evacuate. Due to congestion of area phone lines, when the mass notification message was sent, the message was stuck behind other mass notification messages being distributed at the same time. Sugar Land residents did not receive the notification call from their local 9–1–1 center until 8 or 9 hours after it was sent. September 22nd, at the height of the evacuation gridlock, local 9–1–1 centers struggled to keep up with their incoming emergency calls. The Harris County 9–1–1 center, who answers emergency calls for the unincorporated areas of Harris County, excluding Houston, experienced a 76% spike in call volume, receiving 11,783 calls that day.

Spikes in 9–1–1 Call Volume at Harris County 9–1–1 (Credit: Lisa Dodson)

Most of these calls were from people that were on the gridlocked highways; some called due to fears of the incoming storm, some called requesting evacuation updates; however, some called due to legitimate emergencies such as the elderly who relied on supplemental oxygen tanks for breathing that had ran out of air or violent fights erupting at gas stations along evacuation routes.

Some of the evacuees manage to find some gas stations still open on September 22, with most stations closed due to depleted reserves. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A continuous stream of calls, particularly from panicked individuals, created a high volume of repeat calls from the same individuals to the point that it congested 9–1–1 center phone lines, at times crippling their ability to receive new calls. Decisions were made to suspend standard protocols to call back those 9–1–1 callers that had called and hung up before the 9–1–1 dispatcher could answer their call. It was thought that if someone had a true 9–1–1 emergency, then they would call back. This allowed the 9–1–1 center to clear the log jam of calls in the system within a few hours. Once the evacuation traffic had moved out of Harris County and into other counties, call volume lightened to manageable levels that standard protocols could be reinstated.

“Temporarily suspending specific 9–1–1 call handling protocols allowed us to adapt to an extraordinary situation and ensure that we could get to those citizens that had a 9–1–1 emergency” — 9–1–1 Coordinator Lisa Dodson

Local law enforcement officials struggled responding to emergency calls with all major roadways being deadlocked with traffic with evacuating citizens. For those law enforcement officials not directly tasked with managing contraflow traffic, efforts were focused on higher priority crimes, such as incidents involving acts of violence because of rising tensions. Fights broke out over fuel at local gas stations. Arguments among those sitting in freeway traffic occurred, some resulting in fender benders and fights as well. Due to the traffic jams, arresting those that broke the law required law enforcement officials to release offenders and issue warrants for arrest to be executed later. Through Thursday and Friday, gas stations began closing to the public due to running out of fuel. In rural areas where gas was available, law enforcement policed those stations in attempt to maintain order. Officials recognized that many local government agencies do not have fuel reserves to provide for their own vehicles during an emergency. Faced with gas shortages and the incoming storm, emergency officials parked vehicles to conserve fuel and prioritized calls that they would respond to. Emergency responders were directed to only respond to life-threatening emergencies. Calls from the public for non-life threatening reports, such as looting or non-injury accidents, were instructed to call back after the storm had passed through. Those that did not want to call back were told that they could expect to wait several hours before receiving assistance, if not the next day.

Evacuees from Hurricane Rita stand outside their vehicles on Interstate 10 near downtown Houston, Sept. 22, 2005. Traffic was at a standstill as motorists moved just a few miles over a period of hours. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hospitals in counties north of Houston felt the impact of the evacuation as well. At the Conroe Regional Medical Center in Montgomery County, authorities reported that they had 600 patients arrive at the hospital during the evacuation. Most medical complaints were for heat exhaustion and heat stroke, while others were heart related or blood clots in legs due to sitting in vehicles for too long. Numerous pregnant women, in labor, walked to the hospital from the freeway for medical attention.

Evacuation Deemed Successful

September 24th at approximately 0700 hours, Rita made landfall over the Texas/Louisiana border near Port Arthur, approximately 100 miles east of the Houston area. The number of fatalities directly contributed to Hurricane Rita was minimal, 7 deaths, in comparison to the 107 indirect fatalities associated with the Hurricane, most of those a result of the evacuation. The most tragic of those deaths related to the evacuation were 24 nursing home residents who traveled from Bellaire, a Houston suburb, by bus to Dallas who died when their charter bus caught fire and exploded on Friday, September 23rd.

All roads impacted by the evacuation were cleared of motorists on September 23rd, the day before Rita’s landfall. Despite Mayor White acknowledging that “being on the highway is a deathtrap” referencing the millions of people that were stuck in the gridlock with the threat of a storm, the evacuation was considered a success by government officials. Most of the region had been evacuated at least 12 hours prior to Rita making landfall.

“being on the highway is a deathtrap” — Houston Mayor Bill White

Following the evacuation, a 14-member task force was established by Governor Rick Perry to review fuel availability, communication and coordination during such an event, evacuation of special needs populations, and general transportation and mobility issues, marking this as the second task force formed by Governor Perry to analyze the state’s readiness for evacuations. The previous task force had just previously met and issued a report on hurricane preparedness six months prior to Rita that gave 18 recommendations on the same topics. As result of the second task force, called the Governor’s Task Force on Evacuation, Transportation and Logistics, Governor Perry issued Executive Order RP57 on March 21, 2006 directing the Texas Department of Homeland Security to carry out the recommendations from the task forces.

I think we need to fine-tune the planning so that contra-lanes are open earlier so that all the outgoing traffic can go on both sides of the freeway earlier than was done in Rita…I think that will be our added lesson.” — Senator Key Bailey Hutchinson

At the center of the evacuation, was the concept of re-directing traffic known as ‘contra-flow’. Experts stated that authorities must be prepared to quickly turn two-way roads and highways into one-way evacuation routes. While people were gridlocked on outbound highways during the evacuation, the inbound lanes went almost completely unused until TxDOT opened them up. In an interview, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson said “I think we need to fine-tune the planning so that contra-lanes are open earlier so that all the outgoing traffic can go on both sides of the freeway earlier than was done in Rita…I think that will be our added lesson.”. A key recommendation from the task force was for the state to develop a contra-flow traffic plan to include pre-defined timeframes leading up to a disaster for implementing contra-flow and the procedures for re-merging those reversed lanes afterwards.

Other key recommendations from the task force include the state coordinating with the private sector to address fuel needs along evacuation routes. The task force acknowledged that unexpected fuel shortages along evacuation routes caused hundreds of motorists to become stranded; often unable to access gas stations because state and local officials had exit ramps blocked to prevent existing from evacuation routes.

Acknowledging the Shortcomings

“a lot more people evacuated than should have evacuated” — Frank Gutierrez, Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator

In what psychologists later dubbed as the “Katrina Effect”, it is believed that people feared the potential damage of Rita and “a lot more people evacuated than should have evacuated”, said Frank Gutierrez, the Emergency Management Coordinator of Harris County (Houston). With images of storm damage to New Orleans, many people evacuated from areas that were not viewed as seriously at risk for major damage because they were outside of storm surge zones. According to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels “the biggest flaw in this plan is communications, they didn’t understand what could happen…We did not do a good enough job of telling people that you get on the road, it may take 20 hours, referring to people failing to adequately prepare for evacuation.

“We did not do a good enough job of telling people that you get on the road, it may take 20 hours” — Harris County Judge Robert Eckels

Just prior to the announcement of the Governor’s new task force, Mayor Bill White was quoted, I don’t think the evacuation should be a disaster in itself”. Hurricane Katrina, at that time, was the strongest recorded storm that season; however, post-season statistics show that Rita ranked the 4th strongest storm that season, and Katrina ranked 6th. Based upon maximum sustained winds, Rita surpassed Katrina that 2005 season, and was 2nd only to Hurricane Wilma. Katrina’s damage in New Orleans affected a much larger population, causing the impact created by Rita to be virtually forgotten.

Looking back on 10 years since the Gulf Coast’s ‘forgotten storm’, Hurricane Rita (Credit: PBS News Hour, 2015)

Rita ranks 6th among all North Atlantic storms between years 1851–2015 according to the National Hurricane Center’s Hurricane Research Division. With most of the death toll from Rita resulting from the evacuation and significant numbers of population impacted by the evacuation itself rather than the storm, there is sufficient supporting information to be argued that the Hurricane Rita ‘disaster’ was the evacuation and not the storm itself.

Related Article: Evacuating Large Urban Areas: Challenges for Emergency Management Policies and Concepts