Saturday, September 24, 2005

Everybody Out
Back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration started thinking about how to fight a nuclear war, one its most hilarious contingency plans was for the mail. If people had to evacuate a place, why, they'd just fill out a change of address card, and within a few days, they would start receiving their mail as normal. Now, anybody who bothered to think about it knew there was never a chance in Hell that their credit-card bill or their subscription to Wine Spectator was going to be redirected from their nuked hometown to wherever they happened to be a couple of weeks later. The naivete it took to believe such a plan would work was astounding, yet thoroughly American--optimistic, can-do, and failing to account for the possibility that circumstances might lead to chaos, and that chaos has its own agenda.

We tend to think in similarly naive terms about the process of evacuating our cities in case of disaster. Why, we'll just get in the car and drive a couple of hundred miles to Grandma's house, and everything will be fine. But we've seen two major cities evacuated in the last month, and even after the lessons of Katrina, the Rita evacuation didn't go smoothly. It took some people a full 24 hours to travel 40 or 50 miles in getting out of Houston--and some people became so discouraged that they turned around and went back. Cars stalled, gasoline was scarce or nonexistent, emergency services were snarled (in New Orleans, there were reports of cops abandoning their responsibilities to save themselves)--and authorities waited a long time to open southbound and westbound lanes of interstates to traffic going the other way. In addition, Houston residents were supposed to leave on a schedule by zone--but such a plan is a massive denial of human nature. When a disaster is coming and you need to get out, would you wait your turn to hit the road? And let's not forget that a significant percentage of any evacuated population is going to do so in a state of panic, which adds another level of uncertainty to the evacuation process.

When Hurricane Rita made landfall at category 2 overnight, it was good news for everybody along the Gulf. There's still going to be serious damage and fatalities, but less than there might have been. Before that fact is used to tout the sucess of Bush Administration's response to this emergency, and to whitewash its failures during Hurricane Katrina, let's remember one big lesson both hurricanes should have taught us: evacuation is an imperfect science. It's also probably an imperfectable one--but it should be improvable. If we've learned our lessons.

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