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Sunday, September 19, 1999

4-Lane Evacuation

Texas said in '92 I-37 could be turned north in 2 1/2 hours


By James A. Suydam


File clip
An Aug. 20, 1992 Caller-Times article described an evacuation plan announced by state and local officials at a news conference. The plan included turning the southbound lanes of Interstate 37 north and closing all southbound exits of the interstate. Seven years later, local Department of Public Safety officials say the plan never was finalized and couldn't have been used in the Hurricane Bret evacuation. Click here to enlarge
When former Department of Public Safety Capt. Oren Moore saw the traffic backed up for miles along Interstate 37 as Hurricane Bret headed for the Coastal Bend, he wondered why officials didn't turn all lanes northbound to clear the way.
   A plan existed to do so, Moore knew, because he helped develop it seven years ago.
   "It was distressing to see the bottleneck they had from (South Padre Island Drive) all the way past the (Nueces) river," said the retired state district disaster chairman of the Hurricane Bret traffic. "I thought we had learned more than that from (Hurricane) Allen."
   In 1980, as Hurricane Allen bore down on the Texas coast, the normally three-hour drive to San Antonio became a 14-hour endurance test as tens of thousands of South Texas residents fled.
   Following that storm, Moore spent several often frustrating months working with various state and local entities to develop a plan that would improve traffic flow during the next evacuation.
   State and local officials announced the plan to the public in an August 1992 news conference shortly before Moore's retirement. Highlights of the detailed plan included:

  • Turning the southbound I-37 lanes northbound within 2 1/2 hours after officials initiated the plan.
  • Stationing law-enforcement officers from counties along the way at all southbound exit ramps to keep motorists from leaving the temporary expressway.
  • Blocking ramps with barricades.
  • One DPS trooper would leave San Antonio driving south, and another would leave Corpus Christi driving north in the southbound lanes, verifying that on-ramps were blocked. When the two met around George West, the roadway would be declared clear, and the northbound traffic would be diverted into the southbound lanes.
  • Establishing the first allowed exit at State Loop 1604 outside of San Antonio, with the one-way traffic ending at Loop 410 in San Antonio.
       On Aug. 22, more than 35,000 vehicles left Corpus Christi and the surrounding area as Hurricane Bret threatened the coast. Thousands of cars packed I-37 in the slow-moving northbound lanes, while southbound lanes had sparse traffic. Many local officials and residents - including Moore - questioned why the DPS refused to allow traffic to travel north on the southbound lanes.
       "There wasn't anything wrong with the plan," Moore said. "We worked it out with the officials in San Antonio. We had written agreements with every sheriff's office between here and San Antonio that they would (participate in the plan).
       "I don't know what happened."
       'Nobody got together'
    Only a plan
    • DPS had a four-lane evacuation plan in 1992.
    • Transportation department ran annual drills under the four-lane plan.
    • Ex-City Manager Juan Garza thought the four-lane plan would be used.
    • Ex-Police Chief Henry Garrett thought the plan was ready for use.
    • Why wasn't the 1992 plan put to use? DPS Capt. John Galvan: "Probably because nobody got together, and we can't finalize the draft plan."
    • Why wasn't the plan finalized for seven years? Galvan: "Nobody ever just put the meetings together."

       Department of Public Safety Capt. John Galvan, who now has the position Moore once held and has the authority to turn the traffic flow of southbound I-37 lanes north, said the plan drafted in 1992 is the same plan on the drawing board today.
       Galvan, who has served in his role since December 1993, said the plan hasn't been formally adopted "probably because nobody got together, and we can't finalize the draft plan."
       Asked why seven years hasn't been enough time to make a decision to adopt the plan, Galvan said: "They just never did, I guess. Nobody ever just put the meetings together."
       Other state and local officials say it was the responsibility of the DPS to ensure that the organization was in place to make the plan work and maintain it over the years.
       "(DPS officials) are the ones that manage the plan. They are the ones that are responsible," said Becky Kureska, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. "We're just the infrastructure part of it. It is their plan."
       Transportation department officials drilled annually on their responsibilities under the plan, Kureska said.
       "We go through and talk about who is responsible for what. We always knew that the DPS did not want to use this unless they absolutely had to because it is very labor-intensive and very time-consuming. It's difficult to do," she said. "But we went over it with our people every year, so people knew which barricades they were responsible for."
       No excuses
       Juan Garza, who was city manager in 1992, said he's not sure why there wasn't an evacuation plan ready to turn traffic north during Hurricane Bret.
       He thought such a plan had been worked out since 1992.
       "All I can tell you is that it was my understanding that in the event of an emergency, that's exactly what the plan was - that the lanes would be reversed," Garza said. "I don't know if they ever worked out the details. It was my understanding that they had."
       Garza added that however well thought-out, any plan is just a plan until it's tried.
       "It's essentially a conceptual idea, or a paper idea, until the emergency materializes and then you put it into effect," he said.
       City Councilman Henry Garrett, former police chief and emergency manager in 1992, said he also thought the plan was ready to use.
       "There's no excuse for not having it put in place," he said. "I think somebody really needs to take the ball and run with it and establish a working plan.
       "It was just something that sounded like a good idea - and I still think it's a good idea - but I think there was a lot more work involved than most people thought."
       Controlling the flow north
       Moore said that in developing the plan, he traveled to Florida to study how state officials there had coped with Hurricane Andrew. A major shortcoming there, Moore said, was their failure to open up all lanes of one interstate for evacuation traffic.
       "They found that if you don't create an avenue to use that opposite lane, the people are going to use it themselves, just without any controls, and they had some fatalities," Moore said.
       "Once that instinct for survival kicks in, people will do strange things. The plan was to keep the traffic flow north under control."
       While Georgia and South Carolina were able to convert interstate traffic lanes one way during Hurricane Floyd, Galvan suggested the I-37 lane switch would not be as critical for the Coastal Bend unless a storm unexpectedly struck.
       "That was millions of people having to be moved (away from the East Coast)," Galvan said. "There's a small fraction coming out of this area.
       "If we don't have that many people on the interstate, why do we need to do a four-lane conversion?"
       Galvan said media coverage of the I-37 conversion plan may convince residents to abandon other, more practical evacuation plans, including leaving early.
       "It's the last option," he said of the conversion, adding that because of the coverage, "people are going to expect this thing to be the only way to get out of here, which is wrong."
       Ready for next season
       By next hurricane season, a plan will be ready to turn all traffic on I-37 north if needed, said local attorney M. Colleen McHugh, one of three commissioners statewide who oversee the Department of Public Safety. The other two DPS commissioners - James B. Francis Jr. of Dallas and Robert Holt of Midland - declined requests for interviews.
       "I assure you that there will be a comprehensive plan," McHugh said. "I intend to follow the development of this plan.
       "The key is planning and education. By the time we come into the next hurricane season, there will be a comprehensive plan, and from the Texas Department of Public Safety's perspective, that plan will be written in a way to address public safety concerns of all citizens affected by a hurricane."
       But whether to open the lanes northbound will be decided at the local level - by Galvan, she said. And she said she doesn't think the decision not to open up all lanes of I-37 during Bret was a bad one.
       "While there will be a comprehensive plan that includes a plan for turning all traffic north on 37, it does not mean that the Department of Public Safety will automatically turn all traffic north," she said.
       "Our first concern is public safety, and the decision to turn all traffic north will be made in a way that we will address all public safety concerns."
       Looking forward
       City Manager David Garcia said that he, too, will oversee the effort to create a workable evacuation plan by next year.
       "I think we saw the failure to follow through on it and some of the difficulties that we had," he said. "And I don't want to see that repeated. I'll put the full resources of our organization behind finalizing this plan.
       "What we are planning on doing over the next several weeks is meet with (Texas Department of Transportation) and talk with DPS about barricades, about signs, about the actual details of what it will take to physically move traffic along those lanes."
       City officials have met with DPS and transportation department representatives since Hurricane Bret and have vowed to formalize a plan to allow all traffic to travel north on I-37, if necessary. McHugh said she is confident the issue will be resolved. A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in San Antonio where representatives from the DPS, transportation department and San Antonio Police will discuss the northbound I-37 plan as it affects San Antonio.
       "There is not a reason to look back," she said. "I am impressed that our city leaders and other public officials - members of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Department of Transportation - are looking at a way to develop a plan that addresses all of the needs of South Texas.
       "Let's look forward."

    Related story:
    Georgia wanted to move
    thousands from coast inland:
    They made it happen.


    Staff writer James A. Suydam can be reached at 886-3618 or by e-mail at Staff writer Darren Barbee contributed to this report.

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