Road closures multiply as Gulf Coast assesses Rita’s damage

| Monday, September 26, 2005

The effects from Hurricane Rita's weekend landfall were still being felt throughout the Gulf Region Monday, but officials in Louisiana and Texas said transportation systems and recovery efforts were starting to get back on track.

Although more populated urban areas were spared from the storm's brunt, rural parts of southwestern Louisiana - close to where Rita landed - were hit hard, with homes leveled and thousands of cattle carcasses littering the land in and around Cameron Parish.

Fortunately, Rita's fatality numbers paled in comparison to Katrina. Only two directly storm-related deaths were reported - one from wind, and one from a falling tree, according to media reports. However, hundreds of homes were reduced to splinters. According to CNN, the small Louisiana towns of Lake Charles, Creole, Holly Beach and Cameron have been virtually wiped out by high winds and flooding.

The largest number of deaths was caused by traffic problems that preceded the storm. On Friday, an evacuation bus on Interstate 45 carrying senior citizens from a retirement home in Bellaire, TX, caught fire and exploded, killing 24 of the people inside. Authorities believe a mechanical failure in the brakes caused the fire, which spread into the passenger area and may have exploded when it reached some of the passengers' oxygen tanks.

The explosion also caused a 17-mile backup on the interstate on Thursday, worsening already treacherous traffic conditions.

As many as 2 million residents of Houston and Galveston fled their homes in the few days before the storm, causing traffic jams that created standstills across the state. According to The Associated Press, some drivers sat in traffic for as long as 13 hours, while others turned back to face the storm, fearing they would not be able to escape in time.

Janelle Gbur, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation in the Houston area, said re-entry into Houston and Galveston is moving at an acceptable pace.

"We have the Houston area broken down into three regions, and each day, a different region was zoned as being the return region for that day," Gbur said. "It's something that has worked with, I'd say, moderate success - you obviously don't get 100 percent compliance to a voluntary request, but it seems to be helping."

However, Gbur said congestion could still be a problem in outlying areas.

"These roadways are two-lane roadways, and as you get closer to the major metropolitan are, they open into three and then four lanes," Gbur said. "That's why here in Houston, we may not be seeing the true representation of the congestion that's associated with the re-entry."

The mass exodus that preceded the storm caused fuel shortages throughout the region. However, Chris Ermis, manager at the Flying J truck stop on Interstate 45 in Houston, said fuel supplies at his store are normal, and the traffic flow nearby appears to be normal.

"It seems like it's flowing pretty good," Ermis said. "It's nothing like it was Saturday."

Farther south in Texas, road conditions are in a slightly worse condition. Marc Shepherd, a spokesperson for the TxDOT who works in the southeastern corner of the state, said major roadways - Interstate 10, U.S. 69, U.S. 96 and State Highway 87 - were mostly cleared, and would be reopened at full capacity by Friday.

"It's critical that we get this infrastructure back in place," Shepherd said. "Without a good infrastructure, your economy and your recovery effort just don't take place."

In southern Mississippi, road conditions have improved dramatically. With the exception of U.S. 90, which runs through the state from Alabama to Louisiana, all roadways are open in the state. However, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety is still urging caution as hurricane cleanup carries on throughout the area.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, the only roads that remain closed are Alabama Highway 44 east of U.S. 78, which was shut down due to a landslide caused by Katrina. However, a number of roads in Mobile, Sumter, Choctaw, Marengo, Tuscaloosa, Washington, Clarke, Baldwin and Marion counties remain under advisories as debris cleanup and roadway repair continues.

Specific re-entry routes and up-to-date road closings can be found at the following Web sites:

Road updates can also be obtained by calling:

  • Texas: 1-800-452-9292
  • Louisiana: 1-800-469-4828
  • Mississippi: (601) 987-1212

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