Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rita - belated wrapup

Sorry for the long delay between posts. I made the very stupid decision Friday evening to upgrade to Norton Internet Security's Anti-Spyware Edition, and it started preventing all web access while letting email through. I finally got it disabled this morning so I can post, but I'm still looking at a long slog this afternoon to figure out the long-term solution. Lessons learned: don't buy upgrades when they first come out (let them patch bugs for a while first), and don't do anything to your computer on the eve of a major disaster (or any other situation where Internet access is critical).

So we came through everything OK, as most of Houston did. Just some branches down. Didn't even lose power. Not the most restful night though, with very strong wind gusts slapping an oak tree limb against our roof. I don't think we got gusts much beyond 50mph, but I have a new first-hand appreciation for getting out of the way of anything with winds that go much higher than that.

The next morning I had an email from the BBC looking for first-person on-the-ground interviews about Rita. I called them, and they were very nice, but once they figured out I was in a pretty mildly-hit zone, they lost interest, which I completely understand. If it's not harrowing, it's not news.

Tom asked me to comment on this post regarding lessons learned for future evacuations. I think Tom makes some very valid points. Some people are looking for elaborate methods to optimize evacuations, but I think it can be much simpler than that. I think Houstonians, by and large, want to do the right thing, and an appeal to good citizenship can be effective. If I were governor/judge/mayor, my speech would go something like this:
We're facing a large hurricane and need to evacuate. Unfortunately, our freeways have limited capacity. We will be doing everything possible to increase their capacity (inc. contraflow reversals), but we need to make sure the highest risk families get priority. Therefore we need to ask the lowest risk households (insert criteria here) to stay put until we have gotten the most endangered out. An orderly evacuation will proceed from highest risk to lowest risk households, so those who we might not have the capacity to evacuate will be the safest and most secure rather than the ones in the most danger.

With careful monitoring of traffic loads and division of households into a few tiers of risk, plus constant communication with the media, an orderly evacuation should be stageable. Sure, plenty of low risk people will panic and flee, but I think an appeal to citizenship and charity towards those less fortunate will moderate the traffic flows enough to avoid a repeat of last Thursday.

Even with all the problems, it is pretty amazing to me that we got almost 3 million people out in less than 48 hours. The roads were clear much of Friday, so we could have gotten out even more if necessary - so the total capacity needed is there. The key is staging evacuation flows so people can spend 10 hours in the comfort of their home and then 5 hours on the road instead of 15 hours all in the car.


At 10:57 AM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Adam said...


First, wow. My hurricane blog experience has left me greatly sobered. I won't try anything like that agian for a while. Way too much time and energy.

Second. I think that the point about open roads on Friday is critical. I've talked to dozens of people who tried to leave and turned around. Many, many of them got on the road at 2 or three am on Thursday. A couple of notable things: most of them had well-built homes to return to in mild-to-low risk areas, which means they really sort of self-identified as marginal evacuees. Second, even though they had terrible 8, 10, 12 hour experiences, they didn't need to be evacuated for almost 24 hours after they actually decided to turn around.

So I think this means just by explaining to people that they need to spread it out (shift the peak), aggressively managing incidents on more of the routes earlier on, and adding the contra-flow lanes, we can get an awful lot of evacuating done.

I think there is a lot of power in the self selection idea. So instead of regional zones that look arbitrary and imply a lot of control, what if we ask people to space themselves out by something like first letters of last names?


At 4:16 PM, September 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On your last names idea: not sure if you mean evacuation or post-evacuation. During evacuation, I think the prioritization needs be by risk: near the coastline or in flood prone areas or the elderly. Maybe a simple additive points system, and then stage people from highest points to fewest.

On the return, I think they were trying to do it roughly in order of regions that would have their power restored, traffic lights working, and streets cleared. The west side was hit the least, so they come back soonest.

At 10:39 PM, September 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Point was made about everyone pretty much leaving between 2-3AM Thursday morning, en masse. I was one of those people and I attribute it to a statement made by one of the news anchors right about that time, to the effect that if we don't get out in the next several hours (betw. 2-5 AM or so), we wouldn't make it out at all. That certainly galvanized me (as I have a paraplegic husband to think of besides myself) and several thousand fellow Houstonians into action.

The media refuses to see its culpability in this. And I'm NEVER listening to local media again when something like this hits close to home. I'd as soon trust the weather channel or NOAA weather radio as the local media, which did nothing but whip us all into a fairly needless frenzy.

At 8:32 PM, July 25, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Houston did get lucky during Rita, but I just needed to let you know that your wind estimate of 50mph gusts was a bit off. Bush Intercontinental airport recieved a top gust of 61mph during the storm.


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