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Texas officials address questions about evacuation ordeal

FORT WORTH, Texas—For hundreds of thousands of motorists trying to flee Hurricane Rita, the evacuation became a nightmare.

The question for officials in Texas is whether the ordeal had to be as bad as it was.

One man in a Huntsville shelter said Friday that it took him three days to get there from Dickinson, southeast of Houston—a distance of about 90 miles.

Others, such as Leah Laing and her 2-year-old daughter in Beaumont, didn't even try to leave after they heard news reports about the snarled highways.

"We felt it was safer here than on the roads," Laing said.

In the end, about 2.5 million people evacuated from the Texas coast, most of them from the Houston-Galveston area, officials said.

For many who were trapped Wednesday and Thursday on Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas, the questions included why the nearly empty southbound lanes weren't opened sooner to northbound traffic.

The practice, called contraflow, didn't begin until Thursday morning. Traffic on the highway was jammed starting Wednesday.

Randall Dillard of the Texas Department of Transportation said the agency must wait to act until it gets an order from the governor's office.

Gov. Rick Perry said Friday that the decision was made as soon as local officials requested.

He declined to second-guess the timing, saying that when the issue is analyzed later, people will be amazed.

"It will be almost miraculous that this many people were moved out of harm's way," Perry said.

But one highway expert said the delay in converting the freeway to one-way lanes shows that Texas' emergency response officials had only partly thought through their worst-case scenario for evacuating the Houston area.

"They probably didn't have their evacuation plan details in complete shape," said Carlton Robinson, a Maryland-based former director of program planning for the Highway Users Federation. "They had the concept down, but they didn't have the details."

Emergency planners must not have anticipated such a large number of people trying to evacuate at once, Robinson said, or else they would have started contraflow before the highways became impassable.

By noon Friday, Texas freeways largely were open.

Dillard acknowledged that if the state had decided to convert the Houston-Galveston area to contraflow on Wednesday evening, instead of on Thursday, possibly fewer people would have run out of gas.

And for many drivers, running out of gas marked the end of the line.

As the evacuation grew, the supply of gasoline in Houston and along I-45 quickly dried up, leaving hundreds and possibly thousands of people stuck in towns up and down the state.

The Texas Department of Transportation sent a fleet of about a dozen trucks to patrol evacuation routes for people who needed fuel. The agency was giving motorists up to five gallons of fuel to try to tide them over to the next open gas station.

In all, the agency had helped 5,000 stranded motorists by Friday morning, including those who'd run out of gas and those who had other car trouble.

Steve McCraw, Texas' director of homeland security, said Friday that officials didn't fully anticipate the demand for gasoline. Initially, about 1 million people were expected to evacuate from the Texas coast, but that turned out to be only 40 percent of the actual number, he said.

Many of those who clogged roads in a desperate attempt to get out of town probably would have been safe staying at home, said Edward Mierzejewski, a Florida-based transportation engineer.

But many of those residents had watched the agony of Hurricane Katrina on television—and didn't want the same thing happening to their families during Hurricane Rita.

"No doubt, a lot of people evacuating don't need to be," Mierzejewski said. "Generally, people who live in well-constructed homes and don't live in a flood area stay home. With the mental impact, the tremendous devastation that Hurricane Katrina had on people in New Orleans, and especially Mississippi, you've got so many more people evacuating than you would have expected."

Some people also may have been picking up mixed messages from top officials.

While Houston Mayor Bill White was suggesting Thursday that residents who didn't live in low-lying areas should stay in the city, the governor was warning people, "If you're in this storm's path, you need to get gone."

In Beaumont, some residents who were defying evacuation orders said people were overreacting because of Katrina.

"I'm not going anywhere," said Aron Moore, who eyed the swirling clouds that began to overtake the city Friday afternoon. "Beaumont is used to hurricanes, but it ain't ever panicked like this."

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(Dickson reported from Fort Worth, and Moritz from Austin. Knight Ridder correspondents L. Lamor Williams in Huntsville, and David Klepper in Beaumont contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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