Is the Evacuation More Dangerous than the Storm?

September 28th, 2005

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle this morning, 31 people died in Harris County as a result of hurricane Rita and

More than half of those deaths — 17 of the 31 recorded so far — were of people evacuating to safer ground when they suffered some sort of medical distress, said Beverly Begay, chief investigator of the medical examiner’s office. None of the deaths occurred during the storm itself, she said.

Note that these deaths were in Harris County, and so do not include those twenty or so people who died in the bus fire near Dallas. Also remember that Rita made landfall well up the coast, and the worst weather Harris County experienced was winds that were of tropical storm force, or barely hurricane force – not exactly a killing wind. Nevertheless, the disparity is striking.

It was clear in my experience that the evacuation was a mess. There’s probably little that can be done about the traffic flow problem. Using a few contraflow lanes on a few major highways is not going to prevent the kind of snarlup you get when several million people hit the roads all at the same time. Something that must be done next time is to ensure that gasoline is available along the evacuation routes. On the other hand, there may not be a problem next time, because many people are going to choose not to evacuate. Too many people would rather risk the wind than the highways. I’m trying to decide whether I’m one of them.

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