Sept. 23, 2005 – As Hurricane Rita approaches the Gulf Coast, the seemingly endless line of cars fleeing Houston and other Texas cities has run straight into a snarl of government incompetence, even after authorities spent most of the week bragging about preparedness efforts.
Evacuees who heeded government warnings to leave at-risk areas immediately found themselves mired in massive traffic jams, some stretching for more than 100 miles.
Hurricane Rita is bearing down on the coast at a sluggish 10 miles per hour, but traffic in some areas has moved even slower. The gridlock began as early as Wednesday.
Desperate motorists sat for hours in the sweltering heat, sometimes inching along one car-length at a time, sometimes at a complete standstill. Some have already run out of gas and others say their tanks are dangerously low. Most gas stations in Houston and along the highway have either closed in preparation for the storm or run out of fuel themselves. In the hours of idling on the highways, some people say they have run out of food and water.
Evacuees expressed anger and fear as the hours slipped by and they began to wonder if they would have to weather the storm in their vehicles.
Judie Anderson, who told The Guardian that she had made it only 45 miles in twelve hours on the road, said: "This is the worst planning I've ever seen. They say we've learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina. Well, you couldn't prove it by me."
Another evacuee, Cecile Kritikakis, told the Seattle Times that she had been in her car for sixteen hours, but she had yet to make it past Houstonâ€™s suburbs.
"It's hell," she said. "There's no gas. There's no food... The bathroom is a problem. I guess at this point my strategy is to pray. I thought about going home, but I probably don't have enough gas to get back.... At this rate, there are going to be a lot of hurt people."
Houstonâ€™s mayor, Bill White, acknowledged that "being on the highway is a deathtrap," and said in an interview with the New York Times that the state was sending trucks with gas to help motorists with empty tanks. He was unspecific, though, about when the fuel might arrive. White also said he was organizing convoys of volunteers with buses to take water to thirsty motorists. He presented no specifics as to how gas and water would actually reach people stranded along jam-packed roadways.
Texas Governor Rick Perry said he had asked for federal help in dealing with the situation. He said he had told FEMA it was urgent to deploy tankers of fuel to fill stranded cars and gas stations along the evacuation routes.
For their part, federal authorities told reporters they were working as fast as possible to fulfill state and local governmentsâ€™ requests for assistance.
But in a scenario reminiscent of unfulfilled promises in Hurricane Katrinaâ€™s aftermath earlier this month, drivers told reporters that they had yet to see the promised help.
Also evoking Katrina parallels were public officialsâ€™ efforts to deflect blame for the situation.
Having issued dire warnings to residents urging them to flee the storm over the last several days, Mayor White began to backtrack today, saying he had not ordered so many people to evacuate. Though the evacuation orders for Houston were largely voluntary except for residents of specific flood-prone areas and people who live in mobile homes, Whiteâ€™s warnings this week had urged people not to wait for the storm, invoking the destruction caused by Ritaâ€™s predecessor in Louisiana and Mississippi as an extra prod to encourage them to flee.
But authorities admitted they had not prepared for so many people to evacuate all at once.
Frank E. Gutierrez, the emergency management coordinator for Harris County, told the New York Times that in models they had projected 800,000 to 1.2 million people would flee, but that "well over 2.5 million" were clogging the highways.
Anger rose as aerial shots of the areaâ€™s highways showed northbound lanes clogged and southbound lanes underutilized. Mayor White told the Washington Post he had pleaded with state and federal officials to open southbound lanes to northbound traffic.
The Texas Department of Transportation admitted it initially had no plans to implement such a scheme, known as "contra-flow."
"This was not something we had in place at the time," Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gaby Garcia, told the Seattle Times.
By yesterday afternoon, some lanes had been opened to contra-flow, but traffic still crawled. Friday afternoon, just hours before Ritaâ€™s rain was expected to begin falling, people were still trapped on the highways.
Nevertheless, government officials continued to preach optimism.
"You've done the right thing by leaving two days before Hurricane Rita makes landfall," Gov. Perry told motorists. "You will get out of the coastal region on time. It's just going to take some time."
But with Ritaâ€™s core expected to make landfall by tomorrow morning, time is overtaking gas as the resource is shortest supply on Texas roadways.