Thursday, September 29, 2005

Crying "Havoc!" and letting slip the dogs of panic....

Interesting conversation going on around me in the aftermath of Rita (yes, I'm blogging my day now!)

The consensus on the disastrous evacuation is: government has to do better. How?

Well, for one thing, abandon this idiotic idea that evacuation is a "private choice." When government leaders call for even a voluntary evacuation, they have taken all but the appearance of choice away. In simplest terms, I have the choice to follow the law, or not. There are consequences if I don't, but only if I'm caught. The analogy to a natural disaster such as a hurricane (or even a tornado, which we never run from) is precise: if I choose to ignore the evacuation "advice" (intersting how many government officials are running from responsibility for the consequences of their actions, isn't it?), I take my chances on the impending disaster. If I choose to run, I take my chances (apparently) on being able to escape.

Houston is a city of 4-5 million people spread over several thousand square miles. You could build enough roadways to evacuate it, if you destroyed every building within the city limits. Then, of course, you would reach what I call the road developers ideal state: no place to go, but we can get there! Short of that pointless utopia, evacuating the city is a hopeless prospect, and the nightmare gridlock that affected Houston for 36+ hours will be repeated again and again.

That, or no one will leave, and lives will be lost.

The solution? A novel one is to make the government that calls for the evacuation responsible for removing the people. I know families where every car and driver in the family tried to evacuate, which, of course, only made the traffic problem worse. If government calls for an evacuation, then government needs to remove the people.

Or, alternatively, offer them safe shelters for the duration of the storm. Many people far outside the danger zone of storm surge fled their houses because they feared winds that would uproot live oaks and topple pine trees. Hard to see one of those coming until it's through your roof. In a storm shelter, you may still return home to a damaged house, but at least you weren't in it at the time.

Will be interesting to see if this rises above the left-over frustrations of the Great Gridlock of '05. Local media comes in for much criticism here, for hyping the storm as the "Storm of the Century" and a "rival to Katrina." All in all, it's becoming clear that what happened here was the result of panic, not reason, and that many people in Houston tried to "get out" who really didn't need to. I don't expect this to fade away quietly, either. The death toll from the storm stands at 109. Many of those were caused by the evacuation.

Law enforcement officers not prone to tears said they often wept openly as they dealt with the repercussions of the flight from Rita.

"It was horrible," said San Jacinto County Sheriff's spokesman J.J. Stitt.
When the results of the evacuation are as hard to bear as the storm itself, you know something is seriously wrong. As State Rep. Garnet Coleman says:

"People are downplaying the fact that people died in the evacuation and that is not right.... Is the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That's the question we need to consider."

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