Rita Madness

"This was the largest evacuation in American history, and it went rather well. Next time, if we have to do it again, hopefully we can do it even better."

~ Texas Governor Rick Perry

It is not everyday that one gets to witness firsthand the evacuation of 2.5 million people from an area the size of Rhode Island. Lew Rockwell asked that I share the experience:

Texans packing heat

For the most part, the authorities had enough sense not to enforce mandatory evacuations. This is Texas. Force someone to vacate their property and you're likely to get shot. As a politician, you are not likely to get re-elected. In Galveston, originally thought to be Ground Zero, roughly 5% of the residents ignored orders to leave and battened down the hatches. A.R. "Luke" Lucas of Luke's Caterers vowed to stay open as long as the electricity stayed on, selling bottled water, beer, soft drinks, hot food, and other goods like batteries. Lucas couldn't understand all the praise he received from the 5,000 or so hearty souls who remained. He revealed his primary motive to the local press: "I'm helping myself."

Texans cherish the 2nd amendment. Anyone who had stepped foot in this state longer than a month knew there would be no repeat of the New Orleans looting spree and that it would be safe to ride out the storm. A well-armed man (who wishes to remain anonymous) west of Houston stayed behind, as did most of his gun-toting neighbors. On Thursday night four men tried to break into one of the few vacant houses, inadvertently setting off an alarm. One of the armed residents chased them away.

The eye of the storm: hysteria

Houstonians went from complacency Monday and Tuesday to pure panic Wednesday, the day Rita was upgraded to Category 4 and then 5. With Katrina fresh on everyone's mind and the press and public officials urging evacuation 24/7, fear took over. The old bromide "run from the water, hide from the wind" was forgotten and people as far as 100 miles from the coast hit the eject button.

Oddly, gasoline prices remained flat despite the new reality that demand was increasing and supply limited to the existing gas in underground tanks as the nearby refineries to the south and southeast were being shut in. It was as if the laws of supply and demand were suspended. In fact they were not, just ignored by an energy industry already under attack before Katrina. By the time Rita approached, anti-gouging hysteria had gripped Washington: there was talk of a federal price-gouging law, threats of resuscitating the dreaded "windfall profits tax," and the unveiling of a new gas gouging hotline compliments of the Department of Energy. To make matters worse, Texas is one of over 20 states with an anti-gouging statute. Predictably, gas lines formed, fights broke out, and by Thursday the entire city was bone dry, not a drop to be found.

TSA: MIA

The airports were a zoo on Thursday. The bottleneck was clearly the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners who, like half the New Orleans police force, flew the coop when the going got tough. Security lines were three hours and longer. Private sector employees — flight attendants, ticket agents, baggage handlers, and pilots — all heeded the call. My business partner and I were scheduled to fly to Phoenix 11:45 AM Friday, well before the brunt of the storm was expected to hit Houston early Saturday morning. Our flight was cancelled.

About 1,100 Katrina evacuees (down from a high of nearly 10,000) housed at Reliant Arena and the George R. Brown Convention Center became precious political cargo. They were bused south to Ellington Field and flown out to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Most were frustrated, some were bitter, and one was even disoriented: "I don't even know where that's at." (Hint: try just north of Louisiana.)

Declare success and form a study commission

The evacuation of coastal areas began immediately and proceeded in an orderly manner Monday and Tuesday. Residents of Houston (4th largest city in the country, population 4.7 million) started hitting the exits Wednesday en masse, creating the mother of all traffic jams. 100-degree heat and 90% humidity only made a bad situation worse as people turned off their air conditioners and in some cases pushed their cars in order to save gas. Contra-flow lanes were not opened until late Thursday afternoon. A trip to Austin along 290, normally 2 hours, took 12 to 16 hours. A leisurely 4-hour drive to Dallas on I-45 turned into a 30-hour ordeal.

The Houston Chronicle set up an online forum to discuss Hurricane Rita. There were many reports of small town residents bringing food and water to the weary and a few cases of police getting in the way or failing to clear accidents quickly. One evacuee wrote:

"If I learned anything about this situation it is don't trust the government and they are the last ones to depend on. If they didn't block most of the stores and roadways, maybe they could have been giving people water."

The death toll from Rita is now up to 107 (nearly all from the exodus), ranging from a 2-year-old Houston girl crushed by a pickup truck to a 92-year-old La Marque woman who lost consciousness while stuck in gridlock. The driver of the truck was a 64-year old man who fell asleep after 20 hours on the road. This pressure cooker literally exploded just south of Dallas Friday morning as a bus inferno claimed 23 elderly from a nursing home in Bellaire. Houston Mayor Bill White conceded, "I don't think the evacuation should be a disaster in itself."

Government officials claim the evacuation went as well as can be expected. (On this point classical liberals and Austro-libertarians would agree.) A dedicated Republican, who spent 4 hours to cover 11 miles, then scampered home before she and her husband ran out of gas, gave the officials a "B" for their efforts. The evacuation left hundreds of thousands unable to escape, deposited hundreds of stalled cars alongside the roads, and boasted a fatality rate of 1 in 25,000. What constitutes a failing grade?

Trials and simulations

What could have been done to improve the evacuation process? According to Alfredo Calzadilla, civil engineer with 50 years experience and chief architect of the first highway connecting Venezuela and Brazil, plenty. But it would have required effort and planning, both clearly lacking. According to Calzadilla, the theoretical capacity of a highway is 2,000 vehicles per hour for each lane. This assumes no trucks, no curves, no grade, and ample lane width to facilitate passing. I-45 to Dallas is flat as a pancake and straight as an arrow, constituting a high "level of service." Under these conditions, practical capacity is closer to 1,500 vehicles per hour.

What would it take to maximize the flow of traffic through the various arteries and capillaries out of Houston? The immediate use of contra-flow lanes is a no-brainer. "Ramp metering", in which the traffic feed into the highway system is regulated, is also important. Bottlenecks (e.g. curves, on/off ramps) must be looked at and eliminated. This requires the use of sophisticated traffic simulation software (widely used SimTraffic costs all of $500). These programs are able to simulate the effects of gasoline consumption, auto exhaust, stop-and-go's, and even driver lethargy (modeling the number of vehicle hours traveled) — all factors that seemed to take officials by surprise.

How many people could have been evacuated from Houston with proper planning? Assuming the contra-flow lanes were open on I-10 west to San Antonio, 1-45 north to Dallas and 290 to Austin, and the average vehicle carried three people, 1.3 million people per day could have been evacuated along these routes. This does not include I-10 east to Louisiana, 59 northeast to east Texas, 59 southwest to Corpus Christi, the back roads, trains, private planes, and the airlines. There does not appear to be a shortage of capacity, even for a massive evacuation of 2.5 to 3.0 million people over roughly a three-day period. Imagine if highways were privately owned. It is difficult to fathom profit-maximizing enterprises failing to get the job done.

Greed is good

In contrast to the living hell on the freeways, those who remained in Houston endured much more tolerable circumstances. The greatest annoyance was power outages. I lost electricity for 21 hours which was at the high end for Houston (ultimately restored by the aptly named "Reliant Energy"). When it got dark Saturday night (still without power), my partner and I drove around looking for a place to eat. There were very few restaurants open and the waits were typically two hours. We actually managed to find a place called "Sushi King", sit at their air-conditioned bar, drink an ice-cold Kirin on tap, and have a nice sushi dinner. I love capitalism! It is fascinating to watch the free market respond in a crisis. Those businesses who stayed behind and got up and running quickly with skeleton crews and limited wares did phenomenally well… by providing a valuable service. Good Samaritans? Hardly. More like little Gordon Gekkos, all exploiting an opportunity.

A good friend (and fellow investment manager) told me the fresh-made lasagna dinner his family enjoyed at Azzarelli's Saturday night "earned that guy a 100% tip just as my voluntary contribution to a system we both love."

After rationing gas for the past 6 days, I decided to splurge Sunday and drive around in my air conditioned car (temperatures were in the mid-90s), listen to the Eagles, and observe a city that seemed to be just waking up from a long slumber. There was a Shell station open near the Galleria, fortunate enough to receive the first shipments of gas the night before from a terminal in North Houston. People were waiting 45 minutes, some seemed edgy, and a couple of spats even broke out. There was a huge TV crew in the adjacent parking lot. Houston's lifeline was slowly being reattached.

The grocery stores were beginning to reopen — Rice Saturday night, H.E.B. Sunday afternoon, Randall's Monday, Kroger on Wednesday. I decided to go to Rice Epicurean Market around noon Sunday to beat the rush. Pure joy. I don't think I've ever appreciated the miracle of the marketplace this much. Some shelves were bare, but the operative word was "abundance". I was a kid in a candy store. The process was relaxing and orderly. I took my time, soaked it all in, and filled up my cart. When the hoards returned Monday it could be an entirely different experience, like the vultures fighting over the last scraps on a carcass. (This was, in fact, the case.)

Once bitten…

Thankfully, not everyone in Houston and the surrounding area listened to the authorities. Those who discounted their advice were by far the best off. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wanted two days to restore order before allowing people to return to their homes and cause a repeat of the outbound highway mess. The Texas Dept. of Transportation issued a three-day "Scheduled Return Plan." This time nearly everyone ignored the officials and drove back on their own timetables. Traffic was congested, but nothing like the evacuation. The police were impotent to do anything about it.

October 1, 2005