Don't expect help

Oct. 1, 2005
AT AROUND 11:30 pm on September 21, I backed out of my driveway in northern Galveston County, Texas, and joined the mandatory evacuation in advance of

AT AROUND 11:30 pm on September 21, I backed out of my driveway in northern Galveston County, Texas, and joined the mandatory evacuation in advance of Hurricane Rita. My destination was Livingston, normally about a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Houston. This time it would take closer to 30 hours.

My evacuation route was state Highway 146, and the bumper-to-bumper congestion that became so familiar to television viewers nationwide started just south of La Porte, about 10 miles north of where I live. As dawn broke on September 22, I crossed under Interstate 10 at Mont Belvieu, home to chemical plants and massive underground storage for natural gas. I wasn't even halfway to Livingston to meet up with family members already waiting there.

By now the evacuation had deteriorated to disorganized chaos. As temperatures topped 104∞F during the day (contributing to the 30 or so evacuation-related deaths), traffic crept along at no more than two miles an hour when it wasn't at a dead halt. As vehicles ran out of fuel or broke down, they were left abandoned alongside the road. The same scenes were repeated on the other evacuation routes.

Most convenience stores and service stations along the route were shuttered, but desperate motorists still swarmed each facility in the hope it might have fuel. Little or no water and food were available. Along Highway 146, in particular, there were no rest areas and no way to get out of the sun. Law enforcement presence was minimal. Contra-flow was not initiated on Highway 146 until around 6 pm on September 22.

Despite the problems, the evacuation was part of a Greater Houston area plan, and it did move more than two million people away from a hurricane that reached Category 5 at one point. Unfortunately, the plan was flawed, and it was not implemented properly by the local, county, and state officials.

Incredibly, government officials believed they could achieve a major evacuation of the Houston area in less than a day. They reportedly never conducted a worst-case scenario in any of their evacuation simulations. Nobody — from the local mayors to the Texas governor and his staff — took the initiative to open up all lanes on the evacuation highways for outbound traffic until the news media highlighted the growing disaster.

The 222-page Emergency Evacuation Traffic Management Plan stressed that pass-through counties and host areas were responsible for ensuring that gasoline, food, and essential services were readily available to in-transit evacuees. None of that was done until the evacuees were already in dire straits.

Evacuation problems aside, the actions in advance of Hurricane Rita and cooperation at the state and local level stand in stark contrast with the way Louisiana and New Orleans responded to Hurricane Katrina less than a month earlier. There was no plan, and no one at the city and state level seemed to be in charge or took any responsibility. The Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor had a poor working relationship, and their failure to show leadership and to cooperate contributed to the more than 1,000 hurricane-related deaths that occurred in the city.

While they and their supporters tried to shift the blame for the New Orleans tragedy to the federal government — and the Bush Administration specifically — the fact is that disaster response starts at the local and state level. As one US senator put it: When you dial 911, it doesn't ring at the White House.

Certainly President Bush seemed detached in his initial comments about the impact of Hurricane Katrina, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved with all of the urgency of a slug. Still, those are just two of many reasons why it took so long to help the people hit by Hurricane Katrina.

None of the FEMA failures should have come as a surprise to anyone. It is a puny agency in the midst of the bureaucratic monster better known as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In all, there are 181 agencies that make up DHS, which was created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of the funding and focus at DHS is directed at anti-terrorism efforts. Disaster response funding seems like little more than chump change in the budget.

Even before it was blended into DHS, FEMA showed an inability to react quickly to disasters in the United States. Public bureaucracies today are simply too big and too tied up in red tape to respond effectively. They are paralyzed by the politics of the congressional budgetary process.

Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger had this to say: “Big public bureaucracies are going to get us killed. We ought to at least recognize that our increasingly tough First World problems — terrorism, viruses, the rising incidence of powerful natural disasters — are being addressed by a public sector that is coming to resemble a third world [entity] that can't execute [an effective emergency response].”

What does this mean for the tank truck industry? Very simply, every company is on its own when it comes to the initial response to a disaster. Government help may be days in coming, if at all.

Every company needs effective disaster and emergency response plans, and now is a good time to review the plans that were developed to meet the HM-232 requirements. Management needs to take a closer look at what is required to safeguard employees (and possibly their families), equipment, and facilities. Tank truck fleets should become more involved in organizations, such as TransCAER and the Local Emergency Planning Committees. It's better to be part of a solution than just another problem.