Still work to be done on evacuation plans

Better safe than sorry. Evacuations of Houston and other cities in anticipation of Hurricane Rita were hardships for millions of people and exposed still more flaws in the nation's preparedness for emergencies, but the bottom line is this: They saved lives.

Overreaction is surely preferred to the lackadaisical preparations for Hurricane Katrina. The sad irony is that more people died in the evacuation - the busload of 24 elderly people on a Texas highway - than from the storm itself.

Advance warnings of Rita's force gave many people enough time to get out of the hurricane's direct path. Local, state and federal authorities were able to set up shelters, stockpile supplies and maintain some semblance of order, even as disaster struck.

Clearly, however, more thought must be given to how to move 3 million people out of a major metropolitan area. The primary obstacles were clogged highways and an inadequate supply of gasoline.

For starters, widespread evacuations usually aren't necessary. Experience should tell local emergency officials which areas are likely to flood, and residents should have their own plan for riding out a storm in their homes.

Neighborhood shelters are the answer for people who aren't mobile or who don't have storm-worthy residences. They should be able to travel a few miles to safety, rather than trying to outrun a storm for hundreds of miles.

Also, early warnings for Hurricane Rita still weren't early enough. Evacuations should be done in stages, with the elderly and others most in danger, or with the most difficult problems, headed out of hurricane zones far ahead of the storm. We have to wonder why a busload of elderly people with oxygen tanks was still on the road on Friday.

Contra-flow traffic (sending traffic north on lanes normally used for southbound vehicles) can be tricky and dangerous, especially if authorities haven't prepared for it, but it can greatly reduce jams. And gasoline tankers should have been streaming toward Houston long before the crisis on the highways.

Experience is the best teacher, especially for disasters.


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