Lessons learned

Hurricane Rita is far from spent, but it has spared the major population center of Houston from its full fury, and has already diminished in intensity. While further destruction and suffering is all but certain, it is not too soon to begin thinking about what we have learned about what can be done better. 

America is the land of second (and third or more) chances. Failure itself is less ignominious than a failure to learn from mistakes. Our military forces have in place a rigorous discipline of evaluating major actions after the fighting has ceased, and relentlessly searching for lessons that can be applied to future conflicts. Our civilian authorities must do no less.

One major area on which federal, state and local authorities all over America must focus is the implementation of urban evacuation plans far more effectively than has yet been the case. The sobering sight of massive Texas freeways (in some places, they appeared to be 16 lanes wide) gridlocked in the outbound direction from Houston, while the inbound direction had little traffic, resonated with anyone ever stuck in traffic. It is heartbreaking to imagine the feelings of families stuck in traffic while their gasoline tank empties itself.

If, God forbid, an earthquake or terror attack were to cause millions to flee from the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, our less—capacious freeways would no doubt be turned into partking lots. Mountains and bodies of water constrain the ability to find alternative routes. The same would be true of Seattle, Los Angeles, and even of cities like Minneapolis or Atlanta, where fewer geographic obstacles constrain the highways. New York, with its huge population and many geographic constraints, is the ultimate challenge, of course.

Every American metropolitan area of more than a few hundred thousand people should have in place an evacuation plan that allows for the rapid reversal of traffic on inbound freeway lanes. This is a matter for state authorities, which have the sole ability to mobilize highway patrols and National Guard units. Perhaps implementation of such plans can be partially automated, with gates and warning signs prepositioned at freeway entrances for the inbound lanes. Provision also needs to be made for gasoline tanker trucks to get through traffic and re—supply filling stations.

Inventories must be made of buses and other vehicles capable of transporting those without cars or drivers. Those poeple dependent on others to get them out of cities, should be encouraged to register, so as to be rapidly alerted of vehicles available for them to get out of town. If potentially dangerous equipment such as oxygen bottles need to present, then safeguards need to be invented and put into place.

America remains far too vulnerable to terror attacks. Our enemies are watching and learning from our responses. We must do no less in order to protect ourselves. They will count on panic, looting, and dithering to amplify the impact of any attack they launch. We must short—circuit the responses which they will gleefully predict.

Presumably, mayors and school boards in the future will spare us the disgrace of seeing useless schoolbuses left unused in the wake of an urban evacuation, having learned from the failure of New Orleans authorities to take care of their citizens. But we must improve beyond correcting the obvious failures. Now that we have observed the difficulties in evacuating Houston, we must all consider what we can do for ourselves, and what we need our governments to do, to allow us escape an urban disaster.

Providence has granted us the ability to test our responses to disasters, and we have learned that we are not prepared. We would be ungrateful, not to mention negligent and stupid, to allow the moment to pass without serious reflection.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.

Hurricane Rita is far from spent, but it has spared the major population center of Houston from its full fury, and has already diminished in intensity. While further destruction and suffering is all but certain, it is not too soon to begin thinking about what we have learned about what can be done better. 

America is the land of second (and third or more) chances. Failure itself is less ignominious than a failure to learn from mistakes. Our military forces have in place a rigorous discipline of evaluating major actions after the fighting has ceased, and relentlessly searching for lessons that can be applied to future conflicts. Our civilian authorities must do no less.

One major area on which federal, state and local authorities all over America must focus is the implementation of urban evacuation plans far more effectively than has yet been the case. The sobering sight of massive Texas freeways (in some places, they appeared to be 16 lanes wide) gridlocked in the outbound direction from Houston, while the inbound direction had little traffic, resonated with anyone ever stuck in traffic. It is heartbreaking to imagine the feelings of families stuck in traffic while their gasoline tank empties itself.

If, God forbid, an earthquake or terror attack were to cause millions to flee from the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, our less—capacious freeways would no doubt be turned into partking lots. Mountains and bodies of water constrain the ability to find alternative routes. The same would be true of Seattle, Los Angeles, and even of cities like Minneapolis or Atlanta, where fewer geographic obstacles constrain the highways. New York, with its huge population and many geographic constraints, is the ultimate challenge, of course.

Every American metropolitan area of more than a few hundred thousand people should have in place an evacuation plan that allows for the rapid reversal of traffic on inbound freeway lanes. This is a matter for state authorities, which have the sole ability to mobilize highway patrols and National Guard units. Perhaps implementation of such plans can be partially automated, with gates and warning signs prepositioned at freeway entrances for the inbound lanes. Provision also needs to be made for gasoline tanker trucks to get through traffic and re—supply filling stations.

Inventories must be made of buses and other vehicles capable of transporting those without cars or drivers. Those poeple dependent on others to get them out of cities, should be encouraged to register, so as to be rapidly alerted of vehicles available for them to get out of town. If potentially dangerous equipment such as oxygen bottles need to present, then safeguards need to be invented and put into place.

America remains far too vulnerable to terror attacks. Our enemies are watching and learning from our responses. We must do no less in order to protect ourselves. They will count on panic, looting, and dithering to amplify the impact of any attack they launch. We must short—circuit the responses which they will gleefully predict.

Presumably, mayors and school boards in the future will spare us the disgrace of seeing useless schoolbuses left unused in the wake of an urban evacuation, having learned from the failure of New Orleans authorities to take care of their citizens. But we must improve beyond correcting the obvious failures. Now that we have observed the difficulties in evacuating Houston, we must all consider what we can do for ourselves, and what we need our governments to do, to allow us escape an urban disaster.

Providence has granted us the ability to test our responses to disasters, and we have learned that we are not prepared. We would be ungrateful, not to mention negligent and stupid, to allow the moment to pass without serious reflection.

Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.