Emergency Transportation Operations

Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments

Houston, Texas

#6-Most Congested
#6-Population (5,728,000)
INRIX® National Traffic Scorecard 2009

map of Houston, Texas

The Plan

The June 2006 plan provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) for this study represents the most recent version of the State evacuation plan. State authorities rely on local officials to develop their portion of the State plan. Though local involvement previously existed in plan development, involvement in plan updates increased at all levels of government as they discovered gaps from recent major events, including Hurricane Rita.

Good communication exists between the coastal area and the cities some 30 to 50 miles away, such as Houston. This enables decision-makers to ensure timely actions are taken to evacuate coastal populations first. Often, these authorities make evacuation decisions in real-time as updated weather and road conditions information is received. Recent plan changes include who makes the evacuation decision. Before the change, the State decided when and who would be evacuated.

In the six months prior to the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, Houston authorities update public maps, share them with the public, and coordinate on improvements for the upcoming season. Houston area leadership meets regularly at TranStar, Houston's regional traffic and emergency management center which also houses public safety and Houston Metro, to discuss hurricane, hazardous materials or other triggers that might lead to an evacuation. Often, the team discusses the evacuation and shelter-in-place plans, the latter used for chemical release or weather events. Galveston and Austin collaborate through a formal agreement in which Austin would shelter Galveston evacuees. In addition, other cities in Galveston County partner with sister cities that agree to accept the evacuees. Some cities issue monitoring wrist bands to allow the State's EMA to track evacuees. The local MPO may support evacuation planning by developing tools for their jurisdictions and aiding in regional coordination. For example, the Houston-Galveston Area Council of Governments (HGAC), as the Region's MPO, developed a database with all of the traffic management locations. This information is shared with the DPS, and the MPO shares it with other agencies as requested. The Houston MPO is much more active in the development of the plan than the receiving cities' MPOs. The respondents noted that the officer making the calls in the local region maintains the updated version, from which local decision makers base their evacuation decisions.

image of a sign displaying: Houston to San Antonio Texas, directly below that - Interstate 10 shield, directly below that - Hurricane Evacuation Contraflow Route, directly below that Mortorist Advisory, directly below that - Evacuation Plans May or May Not Include Activating Contraflow Lanes, and directly below that - Texas Department of Transportation

Each year, regional DPS officers meet with local jurisdictions to review the plan and update it to reflect new road construction and other changes. While individual plans are edited, the State-approved plan does not reflect these edits. The lengthy review process before the revised State plan can be approved results in a time lag between changes in local plans and changes to the State DPS-approved plan.

congestion on a freeway

Those areas that are more likely to evacuate meet regularly to ensure the plan is up-to-date. As a result from what was learned from Hurricane Rita, Houston realized that their evacuation plan needed to extend 100 miles outside the city. In such an event, Dallas would serve as a receiver city. Dallas and Houston meet annually to discuss updates to the plan that concern both cities. Dallas and Houston exercise and train together annually to test their portion of the plan. Galveston and Houston meet annually to discuss plans and updates. County judges, who are the officials responsible for making the decision for the county to evacuate, host these meetings.

For Houston, police monitor the traffic control points during an evacuation, and consider improvements to the transportation portion of the plan. More critical to the success of the plan is that both the police and emergency managers make changes to the plan together. Both the police and emergency managers talk to the transportation operation people about routes, roads, including talking with engineers regarding traffic signals to ensure that the plan includes updates and that they understand current limitations. An example of one such limitation recently addressed dealt with Highway 6 which goes through several jurisdictions. Though it is a TxDOT facility, Highway 6's signalized traffic control system in some cities is operated by those cities. As a result of shared control, officials undertook a coordinated effort to develop a plan for the corridor.

The interviewees reported that communication among agencies, including the Department of Public Works, continues to improve due in part to the success in migrating to the Regional Radio System (800MHz). In addition, the city of Houston is implementing a completely new public safety communications system (700 MHz). The communications equipment purchased by Houston works on both the 700 MHz and 800MHz to allow integrated communications.

Image of Evacuation of Houston prior to Hurricane Rita on I-45
Figure 2. Evacuation of Houston prior to Hurricane Rita on I-45

In early April 2010, the Houston TranStar announced the launch of a new Web-based emergency evacuation mapping system that will improve the coordination of major evacuation efforts in the Gulf Coast region. The interactive evacuation status map will allow transportation managers, law enforcement and other first responders to use real-time information to coordinate and monitor traffic flow, personnel deployment, weather and other conditions during large-scale evacuations. Houston TranStar created the state-of-the-art evacuation system by incorporating the latest ITS technologies to improve the safety and efficiency of major evacuation efforts.

Houston currently benefits from a Homeland Security Grant to address evacuation planning as a part of catastrophic planning. The DHS/FEMA RCPGP provides catastrophic events planning grants to the 10 highest risk Urban Areas and surrounding regions, including: Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Boston, Honolulu, Norfolk, and Seattle.

Top Highway Impediments

Top Highway Impediments

  • Bottlenecks
  • Communications with the Public
  • Number/Type of Resources to Deploy
  • More CCTV Cameras
  • Modeling Timeliness

The interviewees reported the following most significant impediments along NHS routes that may impact effective large-scale, mass evacuations from the Houston metropolitan area.

  1. Bottlenecks - As the population of Houston travels outward, they would encounter roads that narrow to 2 lanes which may create bottlenecks under certain heavy outflow scenarios. TxDOT is developing plans to limit bottlenecks. For example, authorities can order a halt to construction/work zone operations to alleviate bottlenecks when an event occurs.
  2. Communications with the Public - State officials work with local authorities on thresholds and how to inform people when to evacuate. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, local officials demonstrated that they had made progress to communicate a consistent message. Since Texas has increased technology that enables decision makers to see conditions far beyond the local area, such as where traffic is moving, they are now able to tell those who do not need to evacuate to stay.
  3. Number and Type of Resources to Deploy - Officials continue to struggle with how many, what types, and where to deploy responders and other resources to support evacuation operations.
  4. More CCTV Cameras - The various cameras along the evacuation corridors allowed officials to observe traffic and make better projections on when the congestion will dissipate.
  5. Modeling Timeliness - The local MPO is investing in modeling software to aid decisions to evacuate. However, most software programs take a long time to process data. The MPO seeks a software package that will take 2 to 3 hours (versus overnight) to provide information. As part of that effort, the MPO is working with three universities on different models as well as looking at different technologies.

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