THE TRAFFIC, MAN

On my chair this morning when I got to work was a report on the Hurricane Rita traffic imbroglio prepared by a guy named Paul LeBon, who identified himself on his cover letter simply as “transportation advocate.” In short, Paul really cares about traffic. He’s the kind of guy who hears that evacuees coming up I-45 are getting stuck in traffic, comes up with a solution involving WRR, and calls the city manager to get it done. When he can’t get any response from the city manager, he starts calling around to radio stations. Then he drafts a memo to Rick Perry. When all that fails, he prepares a report that winds up in my chair.

If you, too, care about traffic–like if you’re Tony Hartzel–you’ll want to read Paul’s report:

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HURRICANE RITA GRIDLOCK
Did political and media inaction contribute to a tragedy?
by Paul LeBon

Tuesday, September 20

As Hurricane Rita approached Galveston and warnings were issued for Galveston County and low-lying areas of Harris County, I flew to Hobby Airport in the afternoon and was met by my mother-in-law and driven to her home in Texas City. I planned to drive her to our home in the Dallas area on Wednesday morning.

We packed important papers, family photos and heirlooms, and clothing into my mother-in-law’s car, finishing the task around 5:00 pm. In spite of her reluctance to travel at night, I convinced my mother-in-law to leave that evening. The drive from Texas City to Highland Village took just over six hours.

Wednesday, September 21

Throughout the day, news media reports and contacts with two brothers-in-law still in the Houston area provided information and indications of the escalating evacuation and its attendant traffic problems.

Thursday, September 22

Having been on the hunt to purchase a portable generator for possible use at my mother-in-law’s for post-Rita clean-up and recovery, I arrived at the Lewisville Home Depot just in time for their 6:00 am opening. Their expected shipment of generators had not arrived overnight. I then drove to the Home Depot in Carrollton and was equally disappointed.

At a convenience store just off I-35 in Carrollton, I was approached by a gentleman who had his family with him in their minivan. He told me that that they had been on the road for 14 hours from Houston, having left at 4:00 pm on Wednesday. He had tried calling the toll free evacuee number that was flashing on TxDOT electronic message boards along the highway but heard a continuous busy signal.

The family had tried to get rooms at three hotels along I-35 in Dallas and Farmers Branch but none had vanancies. The gentleman asked for suggestions and I urged him to drive north on I-35 to Norman, Oklahoma.

As I drove home and tuned several radio traffic reports, they were all reporting extremely heavy traffic backed up on I-45 Northbound coming into Dallas. The traffic reports were geared toward the usual morning Metroplex commuters, and were being delivered in “Dallas-ese”. (i.e. “Northbound Central Expressway, a long back-up at the High Five to head west on LBJ.”)

Strangers arriving into the Dallas area could make no sense of what they were hearing and were feeling exhausted and frustrated after having been on the road all night long.

The morning television traffic reports and helicopter footage showed the growing problem but this only served to inform local commuters and was of no service to the hordes of northbound of vehicles.

Efforts to Ease the Traffic Backup

–Dallas City Hall–

Having heard that the toll free number for evacuees was constantly busy, I considered that if the city of Dallas were to broadcast evacuee traffic information on the city owned radio station WRR and post the radio station dial numbers on the TxDOT signs, that people could get information more quickly and might be able to get off I-45 in a more timely manner.

I phoned Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm’s office (214-670-3297) and spoke with an unnamed assistant and shared my concerns and suggestion regarding WRR. I was told that she would pass along my suggestion.

I then called the office of Mayor Laura Miller and spoke with Sheila Stokes, Special Assistant to the Mayor (214-670-7978). I repeated my concerns and suggestion to Ms. Stokes. I was told that the city had a plan in place to manage the evacuees with the toll-free number, and that using WRR in that manner was unnecessary. When I explained to Ms. Stokes that the telephone lines were clogged and that the real issue was traffic movement and the inability of travelers to figure out where to go once they reached Dallas, Ms. Stokes said she would pass my suggestion along.

On Friday, the Dallas Morning News reported that the twenty telephone operators at the Dallas hotline had taken 5,000 calls between 7:00 am and Noon on Thursday.

–Radio Stations–

I called radio stations KRLD and KLIF and suggested to people I spoke with at each station that they tailor their programming to traffic reports in order to help the evacuees and that the traffic information be geared at strangers with no knowledge of the local jargon. The female call screener at KLIF for the morning talk host Darrel Ankarlo told me that traffic reports were finished for the morning and that Mr. Ankarlo was not a traffic reporter, he was a talk radio host.

I then called WBAP and spoke to Jeff Williams, the producer of the Mark Davis Show. I made the same request of Mr. Williams and received basically the same response — that traffic reporting fell under the News Department umbrella and that they were in the midst of their morning talk show and were discussing Hurricane Rita. I asked Mr. Williams how the Emergency Broadcast System got activated, and he told me that only the National Weather Service or law enforcement could have it activated.

–Governor Perry’s Office, Texas DPS, Texas Emergency Management, TxDOT, Galveston County Emergency Management–

At approximately 9:30 am, I drafted a memo to Texas DPS, TxDOT, and Governor Perry’s office titled ‘URGENT!!’ expressing my concerns about the evacuee traffic gridlock, predicting dire consequences along the side of I-45 and making several suggestions regarding communicating with gridlocked evacuees. The memo suggested activating the Emergency Broadcast System. (Now called the Emergency Alert System) (Attachment 1)

I faxed the memo to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Management (DPS) and Governor Perry’s office at the Capitol; I emailed it to William Hale, director of TxDOT’s Dallas district office, Eliot Jennings, Galveston County Emergency Management Director, and the Dallas Morning News.

The only acknowledgement I received was from Mr. Hale at TxDOT thanking me. (Attachment 2)

Gridlock Worsens

At approximately 2:00 pm I had business which took me into downtown Dallas. I decided to drive south on US-75 to I-45 and proceeded as far south as I-20. I-45 was bumper-to-bumper northbound. I proceeded West on I-20 with ease, and followed I-20 to I-35W, making my way north from there. I spoke to numerous families at convenience stores who had evacuated the Houston and Corpus Christi areas.

Several families were traveling in multiple cars, though they could have fit in a single car. One family of four had four vehicles — one per family member, as well as towing a boat trailer and a jet-ski trailer. Media reports increased with stories of abandoned vehicles, drivers out of gas, and gridlocked evacuees with no access to food or bathroom facilities.

Radio Station and Officials — Part 2

At approximately 7:45 pm, I drafted an email titled ‘I-45 Debacle; people are kept in the dark’ and emailed and faxed it to radio stations and officials, noting that evacuees were still stranded and confused on I-45 and rather than being given useful information were having to endure various forms of talk and sports radio. I listened in on Houston radio stations via the internet and they were broadcasting talk radio as well. (see attachment 3)

Friday September 23

Once again, I made my 6:00 am pilgrimage to Home Depot Lewisville and Carrollton and learned there were no generators delivered. I started to make my way to Coppell for 7:00 am Mass and tuned to radio station WBAP for the morning traffic report.

Bus Inferno

Immediately after turning to WBAP I heard traffic reporter Laura Houston report of a bus fire along I-45 just south of Dallas and that she was headed to the scene in the helicopter. She passed along reports, apparently gleaned from police transmissions, that the bus carried elderly evacuees and that there were likely multiple fatalities. At 7:00 am Mass, I asked for prayers for the victims of the bus explosion, an event that others at Mass had not yet become aware.

In spite of the gridlock now being complicated by the shutdown of I-45 due to the bus fire, no action was taken by officials, and radio stations continued with their talk-radio programs throughout the day.

Bus Brakes, Gridlock, and AWOL Officials & Radio Broadcasters

I am by no means knowledgeable about buses, brakes, or any sort of motor vehicle mechanics. However, common sense would tell us that a bus is expected to drive the 250 miles from Houston to Dallas at a normal rate of speed, not to ride its brake for 15 consecutive hours. Common sense would lead to speculation that this is what contributed to the mishap.

Might this tragedy been avoided in any way, irrespective of the mechanical aspects of the now burned-out bus?

The bus carrying the Brighton Gardens evacuees was twenty three miles from its destination when the fire and explosion occurred. The obvious question to ask is, “Had state Emergency Management officials activated the Emergency Alert System to inform and assist evacuees, might traffic have flowed more smoothly?”

Texas Emergency Management officials certainly had the authority. Federal regulations dealing with EAS implementation state as follows:

CFR Title 47: Telecommunication

§ 11.21 State and Local Area Plans and FCC Mapbook

EAS plans contain guidelines which must be followed by broadcast and cable personnel, emergency officials and National Weather Service (NWS) personnel to activate the EAS. The plans include the EAS header codes and messages that will be transmitted by key EAS sources (NP, LP, SP and SR). State and local plans contain unique methods of EAS message distribution such as the use of RBDS. The plans must be reviewed and approved by the Director, Office of Homeland Security, Enforcement Bureau, prior to implementation to ensure that they are consistent with national plans, FCC regulations, and EAS operation.

(a) The State plan contains procedures for State emergency management and other State officials, the NWS, and broadcast and cable personnel to transmit emergency information to the public during a State emergency using the EAS.

(b) The Local Area plan contains procedures for local officials or the NWS to transmit emergency information to the public during a local emergency using the EAS. Local plans may be a part of the State plan. A Local Area is a geographical area of contiguous communities or counties that may include more than one state.

In light of the failure to act on the part of state officials, the next question to ask is, “Had radio stations taken it upon themselves to inform and assist evacuees by talking to them rather than “talking at” them, might these lives have been spared?”

Epilogue

Realizing that the returning traffic to Houston could create similar gridlock, even though drivers had pre-determined destinations to which to return, I devised an alternate strategy to return my mother-in-law and her vehicle to Texas City. We set out from Highland Village at 11:45 pm on Monday, September 26. We headed south on I-35 to Waco, then took Highway 6 to Bryan, continuing on Hwy 290 and then the Hardy Toll Road to I-45/Gulf Freeway. The trip took exactly five hours door to door.

Later Tuesday afternoon, my mother-in-law dropped me at Hobby Airport to catch a 3:30 flight back home to Dallas. I stood outside the terminal in silence as survivors of the bus fire who had been flown into Hobbywere being loaded into two mini-buses from Brighton Gardens and one of its sister facilities, until they drove off escorted by four Houston police cruisers.

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