Monday, September 26, 2005

Contraflow confusion cost lives

The only damage Rita did to me personally was really just inconvenience, forcing me to idle away a half tank of gas insix hours, in what could have been -- without much exaggeration -- history's worst traffic jam last Thursday afternoon. A tragic set of events on a bus filled with nursing home evacuees sent the death toll above the last Category 3 hurricane to hit Houston; Alicia in 1983. But there were a few people who died fleeing the storm whose deaths were more the result of spectacularly poor planning on the part of regional officials, and an unspecific amount of incompetence and cronyism at the Texas Department of Transportation:

From Corpus Christi to Norfolk, Va., most vulnerable cities have pre-set plans to run their highways in one direction only, headed out of town, said Brian Wolshon, a civil engineer at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center.

Wolshon gave a presentation on the subject at Houston's TranStar traffic management center two years ago, but found that officials were reluctant because Houston's freeway grid is much more complicated than other coastal cities.

"I don't think they really took it seriously," he said.

State and local officials changed their minds early last Thursday in the face of a historic traffic jam. But it was too late, and the one-way freeways that eventually opened on Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 didn't relieve drivers' 20-hour nightmares.

All the idling engines created the secondary problem of empty gas tanks and empty gas stations, which state officials admitted they were in no position to remedy.

The TxDOT executive director is a gubernatorial appointment. Michael Behrens assumed the position in September 2001, less than a year after Rick Perry became governor of Texas. Behrens' bio lists education completed prior to his career in state bureaucracy as a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M University, where Governor "Adios MoFo" led cheers for the football team as an undergrad.

Behrie, you're doing a heckuva job.

Update (9/28): Local ABC affiliate KTRK reports at least 31 deaths -- in Harris County alone -- attributable to the hurricane, 19 of those before Rita ever made landfall.

Update (9/29): The death toll reaches 107, and the stories are horrid.

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