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Interstate system proves it is ready to handle massive evacuations

- by Dan McNichol, Contributing Author

Requesting the use of a Louisiana Air National Guard’s Black Hawk helicopter, Mark Lambert conscripted a TV crew and headed up and over the Crescent City to broadcast his message: “Evacuate now, while you still can.” Hanging out of the chopper’s door, the cameraman shot the empty interstate system routes emanating from downtown New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina was just hours from making landfall.

“At 11 o’clock Sunday morning, the day before Katrina came to town, the highways were empty. But, tens of thousands of people had not evacuated from their homes,” recalled Lambert, director of communications for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LADOTD). “We wanted to broadcast images of empty roads so people could see for themselves that they could still get out while the going was good.”

Whenever a Category 3 storm or larger enters the Gulf of Mexico, no matter where it’s heading, LADOTD puts evacuation procedures into motion as if the hurricane is going to be a direct hit on New Orleans. Central to that evacuation plan is contraflow—reversing a highway’s direction of traffic. But that was not always the case. Only recently have highway officials in this hurricane-ravaged area mastered the art of contraflow.

In the hours before Hurricane Katrina, federal and state officials evacuated 1.3 million people to safety in less than two days. Nearly every evacuee traveled the interstate system.

Always the performer

The interstate system is 50 years old this year. At half a century, the vision of Dwight D. Eisenhower has come full circle. Ike’s concept of a vast network of superhighways to protect the nation in times of crisis and strengthen it in times of peace has proven invaluable. Originally planned to aid in rescue and retrieval during a nuclear holocaust, the interstate system has proved itself the nation’s lifeline after its deadliest terror attack on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, its most damaging natural disaster.

After the planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., rescue operations at the disaster zones began over the U.S. Interstate System. In the hours following, the nation’s entire commercial air fleet was grounded and trucks were rushed to airports. Unloading precious cargos of blood, organs and medical supplies from the bellies of planes and loading them into bays of trucks, the nation’s couriers kept the U.S. economy rolling. People stranded in the four corners of the nation worked their way home following the red, white and blue shields along the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Similar actions played out four years later in the Gulf Coast.

With the Department of Homeland Security’s help, over a million maps showing contraflow emergency evacuation routes were distributed to the public. Whether an act of bioterrorism, a nuclear release or a natural disaster, bold colors and large arrows indicate how a mass exodus from New Orleans is executed. However, driving one of the evacuation routes during an emergency requires the use of the interstate system and a leap of faith.

Normally, small white reflectors and green mile markers on the edges of the breakdown lanes are subtle indicators of the road edges. During contraflow, drivers see their ominous red-reflective backsides. Signs not normally seen to sober drivers scream “DO NOT ENTER.” The ubiquitous and mundane green-and-white signs telling drivers what’s ahead look like barren sheets of metal from behind. In their place are flashing electronic message signs indicating on-ramps that have been converted to off-ramps and off-ramps transformed to makeshift on-ramps. Most interchanges are sealed off with large orange barrels banded with reflective material. Only a few junctions are open for the use of gas and restrooms. Exits that are open force a departure from the road to the left instead of the right. Swirling yellow lights atop tow trucks stationed along the highway remind drivers of the crisis.

Another challenge during an evacuation: inexperienced drivers. People who normally don’t drive at all, or at least not on the interstate system, find themselves in traffic on the big roads with their small, ill-prepared vehicles. They and their cars just are not ready for long drives and overheat, run out of fuel or break down causing delays for everyone.

Also, state troopers stationed along evacuation routes had to be pulled from the highway during Katrina. Lambert explained, “During previous evacuations people were stopping and asking them questions. It was only natural, people with worries stopped to query visible figures of authority. But, they were holding up an emergency evacuation with trivial questions. Troopers in their cruisers became unintended information booths.” The troopers were pulled from their posts.

Making it all flow

Reversing the flow of traffic over the interstate system is just short of a miracle. A workshop of the Southeastern states recently met to discuss emergency situations for implementing contraflow. According to the group, “South Carolina’s plan requires 551 public safety officers, 751 National Guard troops and personnel resources from the state transportation, law enforcement, natural resources, forestry, prison services and air patrol agencies.”

To turn roads and bridges into effective evacuation routes the following key findings were shared:

  • Poor contraflow implementation hampers evacuations; traffic model simulation of contraflow plans and training and exercising of personnel is essential;
  • Limiting evacuation zones and centralizing decision-making authority to call for mandatory evacuation and to implement contraflow operations can significantly improve results. Working with the business community to limit normal (commuter) traffic in impacted areas also can have significant payoffs;
  • Driver needs for gas, food, lodging, emergency support and medical resources must be accommodated. Stationing service patrols, wreckers and ambulance units is critical, as is providing information to drivers about where to find services;
  • Public information is key. Messages about when and how to access evacuation routes must be clearly communicated; and
  • Timelines for implementing contraflow operations typically begin 50 hours in advance of tropical storm-force winds.

Workshop proceedings and presentations were accessed through the following website: www.teachamerica.com/ContraFlow/index.html.

“[Hurricane] Georges told us we needed contraflow. [Hurricanes] Ivan and Lilly taught us how to do it. Katrina helped us perfect it,” recited Lambert. “Before Katrina, contraflow was a dirty word.”

In 1998, during Hurricane Georges and before the days of contraflow, evacuees were stuck in horrific traffic jams. Angry after viewing the empty and unused lanes of traffic on the other side of the interstate system people demanded a plan. A trip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, one normally taking over an hour, took more than half a day. When hurricanes Ivan and Lilly hit in 2004, contraflow was tested. Failing miserably, the flow of traffic was no better than during Hurricane Georges. Implementing lessons learned the hard way, contraflow during Katrina worked. “We learned during Georges and Ivan that Louisianans naturally hug the coastal areas. They’re coastal people with strong family ties, and while evacuating they make plans to stay with kin along the coast or in and around Baton Rouge,” said Lambert.

So much westward movement created two notorious evacuation chokepoints: the I-10/I-12 interchange to the east of Baton Rouge and an unnamed I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River to the west of Baton Rouge. The narrowness of the bridge kept hordes of evacuees flowing in from the I-10/I-12 from moving westward toward Houston.

Evacuation patterns during hurricane Georges, Ivan and Lilly had to be corrected if contraflow was to work. As much as possible, evacuees needed to be diverted north into the state of Mississippi. A nearly 40-mile-long section of I-12 was going to be all but shut down to ease the pressure on the I-10/1-12 interchange.

During Katrina, evacuees taking I-10 out of New Orleans had to engage in contraflow by exiting onto the opposite side of I-10 near downtown New Orleans by using what is called a “crossover.” Failure to successfully find and use the center city crossover meant a one-way trip north into Mississippi along I-55. It was a cruel reality, but the contraflow map clearly warns drivers to “Pick your route carefully.”

Detouring I-12 westbound traffic out of Mississippi onto I-59 eliminated the need for keeping the nearly 40-mile-long stretch of I-12 open to through traffic.

“We may not have been popular during Katrina’s evacuation, but we weren’t worried about how happy people were; we were trying to save as many lives as possible,” said Joe Bloise, the current assistant division administrator in Louisiana.

The interstate system has new meaning for those living along the Gulf Coast. Hopefully, the rest of the nation understands just how important their own lifelines are, and following those red, white and blue shields can save you and your family’s life.




McNichol has authored several infrastructure books, including The Roads that Built America.

Source: Roads & Bridges   December 2006   Volume: 44 Number: 12
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