On Traffic and Disaster Evacuations

If you have been watching the news or weather at all over the past few weeks, I’m sure you have seen many images that look like this:

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Evacuation traffic on northbound Interstate 75 and the Florida Turnpike during the lead-up to Hurricane Irma.  Photo: Andrew West, The (Fort Myers, FL) News-Press

Or perhaps something like this:

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Traffic stalls on Interstate 37 leaving Corpus Christi as the devastating Hurricane Harvey approaches Texas.  Photo: Kevin Steele 12NewsNow via Facebook

You may also have heard about gas shortages, as hundreds of thousands of motorists hit the roads simultaneously to get out of the path of Hurricane Irma, the latest devastating natural disaster to bear down on our nation. These gas shortages are reaching as far north as parts of South Carolina and Georgia, as residents fleeing the storm have been unable to fill up further south. This is leading to cars running out of fuel while idling in evacuation traffic, new deliveries of gas supplies being halted due to the hurricane’s high winds and storm surge potential (95+% of Florida’s gasoline supplies are brought in via waterway), and over 35% of gas stations in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area having no gasoline whatsoever.

You may be wondering, why is this happening, and why are there such huge traffic jams on one side of the road while the other side looks nearly perfectly clear?

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Photo: Andrew West, The (Fort Myers, FL) News-Press  Edited by Rational Policy

This is something that has personally irked me every time I have seen it over the recent days and weeks, particularly as I see the solution to this problem on a daily basis as a commuter to the nation’s largest city, New York. To alleviate congestion on the few, desperately old methods of crossing the Hudson River from New Jersey into Manhattan, the transit authorities engages in a common traffic management scheme called “contraflow lane reversal”, or more commonly (and henceforth how I will refer to it) “contraflow”. Contraflow is defined as “a system of traffic lanes whose normal direction is reversed to allow traffic to move during repairs or an accident,” but it can be used to reroute traffic anytime one wants to reduce congestion in an area. On the approaches to New York City from New Jersey, the transit authorities often eliminate a lane of the roadways exiting New York to instead utilize that lane to route buses or other mass transit vehicles into New York City, thus helping to move traffic along in the regular lanes.

During evacuations and other instances of great peril and distress among the populace, avoiding mass traffic jams and the resulting anger, inefficiency, and danger they cause is a critically important job for public officials. Utilizing contraflow to ease congestion on major evacuation throughways not only saves time, energy, and gasoline (avoiding the costly and frustrating gas shortages touched on earlier), it very well could save lives. Choosing not to use contraflow methods to reduce congestion in times of need is a poor policy decision and most definitely not helpful to the citizens stuck in the resulting traffic jam.

The most glaring recent example of this irrational policy in action is the incredibly sad story of the evacuation of Houston in advance of the landfall of Hurricane Rita in 2005. That hurricane was expected to be an extremely strong Category 5 storm, and local and state authorities mandated an evacuation of all residents of Houston, America’s 4th largest city. Likely fresh in their minds at the time was the mass devastation of Hurricane Katrina, only having leveled New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana a few weeks prior. This evacuation led to an estimated 2.5 million people taking to the roads outside of the city, which quite obviously created extreme traffic scenarios. What ensued over the next 24+ hours was chaos: brawling drivers on the shoulder as cars stalled once they ran out of gas, a nursing home bus full of evacuees exploding and killing 24 people, and dozens of drivers and passengers dying of heat stroke or drowning in their cars during the heavy rains and resulting floods. Texas officials took over a day to begin opening contraflow lanes on major highways, but by then it was too late; the damage had already been done. More than 100 people died in Hurricane Rita, although the storm was far less severe than anticipated; most of the casualties were due to the botched evacuation and the congestion on the roadways.

Since the Rita evacuation disaster, the use of contraflow to ease evacuation congestion has significantly improved, with many southern states implementing contraflow plans as part of their disaster-preparedness process. Still, as we have clearly seen in the past few weeks with the latest natural disasters to strike our country, contraflow planning has clearly been lacking. Florida has chosen not to use contraflow at all during the Hurricane Irma evacuations, as it would “inhibit(s) [their] ability to get emergency vehicles to people that need them,” and that allocating the appropriate law enforcement resources to direct contraflow traffic would “take troopers and officers away from other preparation plans.” As we have seen in the past, this could be a major error, especially as it has already led to major gas shortages throughout the state. Not only that, but Florida is undergoing major mandatory evacuations; here are some of the figures:

  • Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale area): approx. 500,000 residents
  • Brevard County: 100,000+ residents
  • Miami-Dade County: 100,000+ residents
  • Monroe County (Florida Keys): approx. 31,000 (as of 9/6/17)

Those are just the mandatory evacuation figures; the three most populous counties in Florida are all under some form of evacuation and have a total of 6 million residents.

Now may be a time to consider using contraflow, otherwise we may be seeing images like this in the coming days, which would only serve to exacerbate what is already set to be a devastating natural disaster.

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Evacuation from Houston during Hurricane Rita in 2005; note the lack of contraflow.

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