Gulf Coast states brace for Hurricane Ike

| 9/12/2008

As more than a million people were evacuating in anticipation of Hurricane Ike – predicted to hit landfall late Friday or early Saturday – a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said evacuation procedures were going “much smoother” than previously during Hurricane Rita.

TxDOT Public Information Officer Randy Ormsby told Land Line on Friday, Sept. 12, that the state’s emergency plan is working extremely well so far to evacuate people from Hurricane Ike’s path. He said although there have been some problems and backups on the roads because of accidents, officials have been able to respond and clear them up much faster than during Hurricane Rita.

“We haven’t had any reports of major blockages that you would expect from an evacuation of this magnitude, and we’re talking about getting a million people out of there,” Ormsby said. “While there have been some accidents, we haven’t had any kind of reports of the problems that we had during Rita where traffic was just stopped for hours – and we don’t anticipate any of those problems now.”

During the evacuation of Hurricane Rita, at least 110 people died trying to evacuate from Houston as the Category 5 hurricane headed toward the city, but only nine people died as a direct result of being in the hurricane’s path in 2005.

Hurricane Ike may reach Category 3 or Category 4 strength before it slams into the Gulf Coast. The National Weather Service warned Galveston residents in smaller structures that they may face “certain death” if they ignore the mandatory orders to leave.

As of noon on Friday, Ormsby said TxDOT had no plans to start contraflow traffic, which uses both sides of the interstates to help speed up traffic flow. At this point it might be too late to help fleeing residents because it takes about four hours to coordinate.

“TxDOT doesn’t make that decision to begin contraflowing. Local jurisdictions make that decision; then we step in and help coordinate the effort,” he said. “If we start now, it would almost be too late to do any good.”

For residents in Ike’s path who waited until Friday to start thinking about evacuating, Ormsby said for people to listen to the input from their local leaders first, not to base their decision on national media reports.

“These local leaders have the facts and are on the ground there. They know where the storm surges are and how much water to expect,” he said. “If (people) are being told to evacuate because of a mandatory order, they really need to listen because they are risking their lives by staying.”

Tom Loomis is general manager of the Pilot Travel Center in Huntsville, TX, which is located inland about 60 miles from Houston. Loomis told Land Line on Friday, Sept. 12, that he’s seen a noticeable decrease in truck traffic there because of Hurricane Ike, which has really put a damper on business. Loomis said the Huntsville schools are housing evacuees fleeing low-lying areas, but that there’s really no traffic moving in or out of the area now.

“Looking out, there is really no one here now,” he said. “There’s been a large decrease in the truck traffic we normally see here.”

Hurricane update
At noon on Friday, the storm was centered about 195 miles southeast of Galveston and moving to the west-northwest near 12 mph. Hurricane warnings now extend over a 400-mile stretch of coastline from Corpus Christi, TX, to Morgan City, LA. Tropical storm warnings have also been extended east to the Mississippi-Alabama state lines.

If you are headed to or from the affected Gulf Coast states, you should check out the following evacuation routes and traffic updates. Click on the following state names to find pertinent information, including maps of evacuation routes.

  • Louisiana – Call 877-4LA-DOTD (877-452-3683) for road conditions
  • Texas – Call 800-452-9292 for road conditions
  • Mississippi – Call 866-521-MDOT (866-521-6368) for road conditions.
  • Florida – Dial 5-1-1 for road conditions, tune into CB Channel 19, scan the Florida Public Radio Network for news updates, and check the Florida Department of Transportation contraflow maps.
  • Alabama – Call 888-588-2848. For the latest news from the state DOT, click here.

– By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer