One of the worst traffic gridlocks in U.S. history took place in Houston, TX during September of 2005. Hurricane Katrina had just wrecked havoc only a few weeks earlier and Hurricane Rita was on track to hit East Texas, causing Houstonians to heed the call to evacuate.
At the time, Rita was forecasted as the strongest Gulf storm on record so people packed up their vehicles and got out of dodge. Unfortunately, for some people the gridlock they experienced during the evacuation would last over 24 hours.
The forecasted conditions from the Category 5 Rita never materialized and the storm weakened to Category 3 before coming ashore in East Texas much further east than predicted. The storm still caused $12 billion in damage, but Katrina did more than $100 billion. About 100 deaths occurred during Rita compared to almost 2,000 during Katrina.
In the Houston area, the chaotic evacuation from the city killed almost as many people as the actual hurricane did. Around 3 million people hit the road prior to the storm’s arrival, creating one of the most dangerous gridlock jams in U.S. history.
While trying to flee drivers waited in traffic for 24-plus hours, while heat stroke impaired or killed dozens. Fights broke out on the highway and a bus carrying nursing home evacuees caught fire killing 24 people.
The bus erupted into flames after the vehicle’s rear axle overheated and ignited oxygen tanks on board. All said, over 100 people died while attempting to evacuate before the actual storm hit.
Initially, Houston mayor Bill White urged residents to evacuate the city, telling residents, “Don’t wait, the time for waiting is over,” reminding residents of the disaster in New Orleans. Later on, Mayor White backed off his earlier statement with, “If you’re not in the evacuation zone, follow the news,” and use common sense.
The reality is some people blame the city for over reacting but their actions made sense since Rita looked disastrous and was headed straight towards Houston with 175 mph winds.
The problem was the Texas Department of Transportation was unprepared to execute such a large-scale evacuation. Their coordination and implementation of the contraflow plan took 8 to 10 hours as inbound traffic was forced to exit the freeways.
Many motorists ran out of gas or experienced breakdowns in temperatures that neared 100 °F. Traffic volumes did not ease for nearly 48 hours as more than three million residents evacuated the area in advance of the storm.
The reality is this time of year we are gearing up for wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters that could force many people to evacuate.
With that in mind I want to share with you some important factors to consider when evacuating in the event that you get stuck in your vehicle for an extended period of time like the folks in Houston.
Create a checklist. Most likely, if you are forced to evacuate during a disaster you are going to forget to bring something or forget to do a task before you leave your home. What I mean is you probably won’t be thinking clearly since you will be in a hurry to get your family to safety. For this reason I would make an evacuation check.
This list should include things such as, grabbing your bug out bag from your basement, packing the car with your water storage, turning off the gas and water to your home, and many more things. My point is you should create this list now when you can go over it multiple times so you don’t forget anything.
Bring a toilet. One of the major issues if you get stuck in gridlock is that everyone will eventually need to go to the bathroom. The last thing you want to do is exit the roadway to find a gas station, as this will simply cause your evacuation to take longer.
With that being said you should prepare to bring your own toilet. This can be something simple such as a 5-gallon bucket with a hole in the lid. Plus, you can line the bucket with trash bags so you can tie off the bag after use and dispose of it as soon as you can.
In addition, pack a roll or two of toilet paper with you in your car and make sure you bring a bed sheet so you can provide some privacy for those who are using the toilet.
Stay the course. If you are stuck in a traffic jam you will instantly think of other routes or roads you can take to get out of town. The problem is you don’t want to take a “back road” that gets you into more trouble than the traffic jam itself.
For example, if you are evacuating because of flooding the alternate route could potentially already be flooded putting you in more danger. Also, during an evacuation you want to avoid heavy vegetation that could catch fire or cause your vehicle to get stuck.
My point is if there was a quicker or easier route to evacuate more traffic would be going that way. So stay the course even though you are stuck in traffic since it is still the safest option.
Safely bring extra gas. Just like you don’t want to stop at a gas station to use the restroom, you definitely don’t want to stop to get gas. Now, if you’ve run out you obviously have no choice but avoid gas stations as much as you can. They will be overcrowded, and will most likely run out of gas.
Therefore, it is a good idea to bring extra gas with you during an evacuation. Most people have gas cans at home for use with their lawn mowers or generators so you should bring these cans with you. The key is to transport the gas cans safely.
What I mean is you NEVER want to put gas can inside a vehicle because they can ignite or make you sick with the fumes. You should safely secure the cans to your roof rack or to a tailgate.
Get below the car windows. If you end up getting trapped and disaster is imminent you need to get as low as possible in your car. Ideally, you want to lie down below the windows since they can easily break due to factors such as high winds, debris or intense heat.
Similarly, make sure you roll up the windows, close the air vents and set your air conditioner to recirculate. The thing is you want to prevent any smoke or bad air from coming into your vehicle.
Undoubtedly, a variety of emergencies can cause an evacuation and in some instances you may have a day to prepare, while other situations might call for immediate action. Planning ahead is critical to ensuring that you can evacuate safely, no matter what sort of disaster you are facing.