LISTENING TO KATRINA
PAGES IN THIS BLOG ARE RATED 'R' AND DO CONTAIN
PROFANITY, VULGARITY, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, NUDITY,
SCENES OF HUMAN EMOTION, DEATH, DESTRUCTION, MAYHEM, AND VARIOUS
EVENT - Row! Row! Row!
When you finally manage to put your lifeboat in the water, ROW!
We have all seen the scary monster movies and other Hollywood depictions of widespread disasters that trigger spontaneous evacuations, and so we all know what that's like. There are accidents everywhere, people driving like maniacs, people shooting at one another, bridges collapse, there are explosions, fires, and tornados, flying cows and ominous signs in the heavens. The military is moving here and there and causing traffic jams. Space aliens block the interstate with their space ships, and it's generally a total horror.
Well, that sells movies, but it doesn't happen that way. At least it didn't happen for the Katrina or Rita evacuations. What did happen is so boring as to make you fall asleep at the wheel. I'd like to write a story of the desperate struggle we endured to make it to Houston, fighting off zombies and giant arachnids, but the truth is that I didn't see a single giant radioactive lizard the whole time. Barring that, then, let's talk about it, look at some scenery, and discuss some general strategy.
In order to understand the evacuation of south-east Louisiana, we have to cover a little history and understand the government's plan of action. Since the subject has a direct impact on my plans, I spent many hours sitting on the throne reading things like "Traffic Impacts and Dispersal Patterns on Secondary and Low Volume Roadways During Regional Evacuations," and "Louisiana Highway Evacuation Plan for Hurricane Katrina: Proactive Management of Regional Evacuations." You wanna talk about BO-RING! If you have insomnia, these will knock you out faster than a cyanide drip.
The bottom line is that the plan known as Contraflow - a process in which all Interstate lanes are made one-way leading out of the threatened area - works. "There is little argument that hundreds of thousands of people were able to move to safety in the short period before the storm arrived (and) a major portion of the exodus took place during the 12 hours before the storm arrived."
Contraflow was developed by a task force comprising the Louisiana State Police and the Department of Transportation and Development. In a thumbnail history, one of the studies notes that contraflow first emerged as a planning scheme after Hurricane Floyd in 1997 and then gained deeper traction after Hurricane Georges in 1998. For Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, contraflow created more headaches than speedy escapes because the coordination was off. By the time Katrina came knocking in 2005, all the snags had been ironed out.
The traffic data collected by various studies shows that in a two-day stretch more than 500,000 vehicles carrying more than 1 million people fled New Orleans and the surrounding area. The "Temporospatial Analysis of Hurricane Katrina Regional Evacuation Traffic Patterns" study indicates that it took 38 hours, starting Saturday at 8 a.m., to get roughly one million people out of harm's way, or "approximately half the time previously estimated by the United State Army Corps of Engineers." I highly recommend that you read it if you want to give yourself seizures.
No matter what we say later about government during a disaster, the Louisiana State Police and the DOTD in Louisiana are two organizations that definitely Have Their Shit Together. The plan works. No matter what you think about people who live in Louisiana - we collectively did something that has never been done before. We evacuated an entire city (and surrounding region!) in less than 48 hours. One problem with the plan, however, is that the normal flow of traffic is completely replaced with the contraflow plan. If you are not familiar or aware of the contraflow patterns, you may waste a lot of time or end up routed to the wrong place.
Since this page is so boring, let me spice it up with something I first heard from Jeff Hall during his excellent lecture Finish the Fight, which I have now heard twice. The metaphor is, "If your plane runs out of gas, you have a problem. If you don't fly the plane and find a place to land, then God will find a place to park you." The rules during such an event are Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate. In our context it's Drive, Navigate, and Communicate. We'll cover Driving in a moment, but the first order of business is to Navigate - to find a place to land. We have to know where we are going. If we don't know where we're going, then God will find a place to park us.
As it is, my smart and clever wife handled this critical item while I was busy running around in my underwear looking for the XYZ. We had a map to Uncle Ken and Aunt Aggie's house. I knew that I had to get onto I-10 West to Houston. In order to do that, I had to know the proper contraflow entrances to that part of the interstate that would put me on that path. The Communicate part came when Andrea called them and they said that we could land there. Almost everything else in the middle comes under Driving - so let's drive.
We are leaving at the last minute - the very last minute. The roads are already crowded. On the way out we had to stop at Andrea's office to secure a few items, but that didn't take us more than ten minutes and the office was on the way. We took the Airline Highway route because that was less crowded than trying to make it to the interstate right away. We entered the interstate contraflow pattern on I-10 in LaPlace.
All along the way, we were tuned to WWL 870 AM, which is the official emergency station of New Orleans - and actually the entire Gulf Coast region. 870 has a 50,000 watt transmission station, and at night you can hear it coast to coast.
Remember that communication works both ways. Gathering information in real time from the radio is very important to your navigation. Have the radio pre-set in your car to the emergency channels. Pay attention to them. They will tell you about traffic flow in real time and help you make decisions. Your escape paths will depend on your local area. New Orleans is fairly unique in that it is actually an island. You cannot leave New Orleans without crossing at least one bridge - and usually you have to cross many. We are bordered on all sides by water, and that limits the routes we can take. Always know all of the escape routes out of your area and be flexible enough to select the best one for your escape.
The first thing I noticed when we made it onto the interstate was that traffic was very orderly. We were moving slowly, but we were moving. Traffic sped up and slowed down periodically and I kept my eyes far ahead in traffic so that I would be ready for these surges and slow-downs. We were running an average of about 35-40 MPH, with bursts up to 55 and slow spots down to 15 or 20.
Nobody was having any road rage. Nobody was trying to weave in and out of traffic. Nobody was shooting anybody else. We were people who all had the same goal and the same purpose - to get the hell out of here - and we all cooperated instinctively, courteously, and with a kind of grim determination.
The second thing I noticed was that people were carrying all kinds of the craziest crap. People had the things that I would expect - like campers, trailers, and cars packed to the roof with clothes and things - but they also had things that they shouldn't have. Things like furniture, appliances, television sets, office chairs, barbeque grills, and other things that they should have left behind - at least in my opinion. More than a few people had obviously over-loaded their vehicles, and while I don't know how far over the limit they were, they were risking tire or suspension failure - which would mean that their lifeboat would sink. Not good.
I was also surprised to see many other vehicles with nothing but people in them. We'll be meeting some of those in just a little bit.
Stop and go traffic can be hard on automobiles, and especially automobiles that aren't well maintained. There were several break downs off to the side of the road, but other people would stop and help those who needed help. The Roadside Assistance people were out in force, all of the State Police were on duty, and ordinary citizens stepped up in places to change tires, look under hoods, and otherwise render assistance to people. Once we were out of the immediate evacuation zone - which was just before Baton Rouge, I suppose, I noticed that there were several local tow services and local mechanics who were augmenting the Roadside Assistance folks. I later found out that these were indeed volunteers who were helping people for free (in most cases) or at cost (in some cases.)
As we made it into Baton Rouge about three hours later - a drive that normally takes an hour - we heard on the radio that traffic in Kenner area (just west of New Orleans) had ground to a halt. Traffic was moving only very slowly if at all as more and more people were taking their last chance to get out.
We were still moving fairly well, but I was very concerned about how the traffic would be in Baton Rouge. Regionally, there are very few ways out of south-east Louisiana. One of those routes - the one we were taking - is through Baton Rouge. There aren't that many places to cross the Mississippi River, and the I-10 can bottle-neck there even under normal conditions.
As it turns out, we made it through there in less than an hour, and made our first stop on the other side to take bathroom breaks. We didn't stop long. I knew we needed to keep moving. We stopped in a McDonalds to use the restroom there and met a family of four. Three older ladies with a young man (the grandson of one of the ladies) driving. They were asking us if we knew where there might be any hotels in the area because they were nearly out of gas and didn't have much money. They had absolutely nothing with them. They had an expectation that they would be returning home the next day and just wanted some place to spend the night. I explained that we were not locals, but were evacuating too, and we exchanged polite conversation while I was waiting for Andrea to come back from the bathroom with Virginia.
Part of that conversation was very telling later when I asked them where they lived. "Lower Ninth Ward.", was the reply. Ouch.
I took the opportunity to change Madeline's diaper and feed her a bottle. At only three months old, she wasn't capable of holding her own bottle. We pulled back on the road, and I noted that the whole stop was 16 minutes - longer than I had wanted.
My idea was to stop for some kind of lunch when we made it to Lafayette - the next major town past Baton Rouge. We would be technically 'safe' from Katrina at that point, and we could take a break. That's a drive that would only take about 50 minutes on a sunny day when a million people on the road weren't trying to evacuate. It took us a little over two hours. As we were in the middle of Lafayette and I was starting to think about the rumbly in my tumbly, the information coming from the radio indicated that the interstate had become a parking lot in Baton Rogue, and between New Orleans and Baton Rouge things were coming to a complete stop.
We were riding a wave that was freezing behind us. If we stopped moving, we would be caught in the freeze. As it was, we were only averaging about 30 MPH, and I didn't want to get stuck. For the first time during this event, I got my mind right. My situation came into sharp focus. I had been communicating with other people on the road, both ahead of me and behind me, and I had a very good picture between that and what I was hearing on the radio. With a sucking sound and a huge *POP*, I finally managed to pull my head out of my ass.
From all the various communications coming in to me, I knew that traffic on highway 190 was a little better than on I-10, but I wasn't sure that the time I would lose taking the detour north would cost me more time than it would save. I made the decision to stick with I-10 because I knew that I would have more opportunities for food, fuel, and bathroom stops than on 190. With little kids, bathroom stops might become frequent at some point... We stopped at a McDonald's again and while Virginia was gnawing on a McNugget, I fueled both vehicles. On credit. I needed to save what little cash I had - a subject we'll come back to shortly.
With the clear knowledge that I did not want to end up frozen in traffic, I knew that this drive was to become a marathon. We had to KEEP MOVING FORWARD, and I applied a strategy I had long ago created and added a few tactics that I had been picking up along the way.
1. KEEP MOVING - Every minute you stop is a minute that something bad
can catch up with you.
2. STOP BEFORE YOU NEED TO - Take advantage of rest areas or other comfort opportunities if they appear un-crowded and available. If you stop when you NEED to, then you might end up stuck in a crowded place, which will cost you time.
3. FUEL OFTEN - You never know when your next opportunity for fuel will occur. If you see a gas station with open pumps, pull in and fuel. You can let the rest of the family take a potty break while the vehicles are drinking gas.
4. DRIVE LIKE A HUMAN BEING - Remember that you are in a life boat. If you wreck the car (sink the boat), your situation worsens by many orders of magnitude. This is NOT a race. RELAX! Being angry, frustrated, or overly temperamental about other people's driving habits DOES NOT HELP!
5. OK, OK, THIS *IS* A RACE, but it's of the 'slow and steady wins' type. KEEP MOVING.
6. RUN HUNGRY. Don't stuff yourself with sugary treats or carbs. You'll get sleepy. Likewise, stay hydrated without doing something stupid like drinking a 32 ounce Big Gulp full of iced tea every hour because it will make your potty breaks more frequent.
7. COMMUNICATE - Let your family or travelling group know exactly what you expect at every stop. Encourage them to urgency. Minutes lost are minutes wasted. This is not the time to shop for souvenirs.
8. COMMUNICATE - Talk to other people who are also travelling. Find out what they have been experiencing. They may have knowledge of something that you do not.
9. COMMUNICATE - Whatever information you can gather from the radio or from cell phone conversations with other people will add to your decision making ability.
10. NAVIGATE - Keep your eyes on the prize. Only take a 'shortcut' if you are 100% certain you can navigate it.
11. COOPERATE with your fellow travelers. They are all doing the same thing you are doing, and you share the same goal.
There are some other things I learned along the way. If you are running with a trailer, for instance, be especially careful. I saw a number of those U-Haul trailers over-turned because some idiot tried to maneuver like he was a NASCAR driver. When you are carrying a load or pulling a trailer, give yourself additional room to stop. More people should learn to use their turn signals. (Refer to your owners manual.) Do not attempt to use the shoulder as a driving lane. Keep that clear for emergency vehicles, break downs, and other people who need to stop suddenly for whatever reason.
We met a number of people along the way who helped us or whom we helped when we could do so expediently. Their stories ranged from "We're going to Disney Land because we have our shit together and a large stash of cash.", to, "We're out of gas, out of money, have nothing but the clothes on our backs, buddy can you spare a dime?" The stress and anxiety level among people who Have Their Shit Together is notably lower than those people who have nothing together. I was somewhere in the middle, having just kluged my shit together in the last 24 hours.
There are some rules of thumb that will clue you in on the state of your fellow travelers. One of them is litter, oddly enough. The more panic people feel, the less they care about the niceties of society. Litter is a direct correlation with the morale of the people. The roadside, rest stops, and refueling stations were quickly full of litter. Not a good sign. The other thing I started to notice was that those items that I didn't think were appropriate for people to try to carry were starting to be discarded. We saw sofas, appliances, television sets, and other items discarded on the side of the road and in rest areas. Sometimes entire trailers worth of stuff were just abandoned.
People actively freaking out was not commonly seen, but weeping women and screaming children were common enough. Some men had that shell-shocked look. Most of us, though, had the grim determination thing going on. Everyone was polite, and everyone cooperated - but some people were obviously not having a good day.
Cell phone channels were clogged. It usually took three or four tries before a phone call would go through.
As the sun went down, the driving slowed even further. We were on the road for 15 1/2 hours, and averaged 23 1/2 MPH (which includes stops). If you are planning to bug out when other people are bugging out, I think it's reasonable to plan for the fact that you will probably not do much better than 20 MPH on interstate highways. Houston and the surrounding area could not pull off an evacuation at all when threatened by Hurricane Rita just a few weeks later. We're going to talk about some strategies for that when we talk about Rita and the Houston Lessons...
The continuing drive on to Houston was a slow, monotonous, urgent drive that I will not further bore you with. Some places ran out of fuel, but there was no extreme shortage on my route. I never let my tank fall below half. On some routes there was a shortage, especially in areas where traffic was moving slowly. There are some strategies for dealing with that which we will cover in the Hurricane Rita section.
There were several things that proved very useful. Having snacks and some bottles of water in the car was good for entertaining Virginia. Having extra towels was handy for when Madeline started projectile vomiting. (Towels are NOT optional!) Baby wipes, likewise. Having a towel to roll up and put behind my lower back was a blessing too. Having one of those portable DVD players for Virginia to watch was also very useful for general sanity.
There were several things that I would have liked to have had. I would liked to have found my GPS unit (which has mapping capabilities) but I could not find the thing despite wasting an hour running around looking for it everywhere. I would also have liked to have had a CB radio, although I am unsure how useful it would have been because I never managed to find that either. I would have liked to have had a small trailer, but I would have especially liked to have had a hitch mounted cargo carrier like the folding one pictured. That would have allowed me to easily carry additional fuel - although I didn't actually need to. A carrier like this would allow you to carry additional wealth - but remember not to exceed your vehicle's load limit. These can be had for under $200, and I keep telling myself to get one...
My Ford Escape actually has a killer roof rack system, which was very handy, but hoisting gas cans over my head is not really my idea of fun. If you decide to carry extra fuel in whatever way, do not leave the cans exposed. Cover them with a tarp or something. You don't want to broadcast to people, "Hey! Look! I have spare gasoline!"
I will share with you a secret desire of my heart. I have always wanted to have a tricked-out BOV. I have always wanted a BOV with on-board air, dual batteries, train horns (sonic weapon!), extra nuclear-burn-out-your-retinas roof lights, brush guards, battering ram, machine guns, grenade launchers, and the ability to drop caltrops out the back end with a push of a button. Truth be told, though, I didn't need any of that stuff weighing me down. Every gadget is space and weight that displaces some other kind of wealth that I could be carrying. I like having backup batteries, and having a secondary fuel tank is high on my list of desires. I do want those train horns one day, but then I'd need a compressor, and if I've got a compressor, I may as well do the on-board air...aw crap...there I go again...
Just know that you don't need to be in BOV Magazine to effectively make your escape. Make common sense decisions. If you've got the cash and you want dual fuel tanks, it can't hurt anything. The best BOV is your daily driver, well maintained, with a full tank of gas.
For now, if you have to bug out, know that it sucks. Your ass will be sore. You will be tired, hungry, and miserable at the end. How tired, hungry, and miserable you are will depend on how well you HYST and how you approach the problems you face. Think about it now and you won't have to worry about it later. Leave early if you can. Don't waste time. Being locked in frozen traffic and having to camp out with other people likewise stranded as you are all overtaken by whatever danger is not my idea of a good vacation. KEEP MOVING FORWARD!
Row! Row! Row!