Saturday, September 24, 2005

Houston Evac Problems Tip of Iceberg

Traffic was snarled for over 24 hours as residents heeded calls to evacuate the city of Houston, TX in preparation for Hurricane Rita. (Herald.Net: Houston evacuation criticized). What the evacuations of both Houston and New Orleans proved is that it is virtually impossible to evacuate a large American city on relatively short notice. What is fortunate in each case is that we had ample warning to evacuate anyone that wanted to leave the city before both hurricanes hit. Not all disasters are as predictable, however.

America's infrastructure is obsolete. The highway systems in almost all sections of the nation date back to the 1950s or 1960s at best. Even new highways being built today barely account for the current flow of traffic, having no provisions at all for either an emergency evacuation or even the projected growth of traffic pressures over the next 10 to 15 years. Boston's infamous "Big Dig" is a classic example of this short-sightedness.

Once again, we do not learn from the past. Imagine a Three Mile Island scenario with any of the nuclear reactors along Philadelphia's waterfront. How would we evacuate a city that cannot handle average rush hour traffic today if an emergency call were made to immediately leave? Anyone driving north on I-95 in the early '90s will remember the large billboard near the New Hampshire border that read "Warning Mr. President. Entering Seabrook Nuclear Area. No Evacuation Possible." The point was valid. Despite several major highway systems in that region, the area is gridlocked every morning and evening with normal commuter traffic. Evacuation plans are a joke.

If we learn nothing else from the events leading up to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we must learn that our infrastructure needs a serious overhaul. Projects to revamp our highway system will take decades to implement. The time to start planning is now. We need to redesign the flow of our highway systems. We need to develop and implement viable high speed mass transit systems that are practical to use for our daily commute. (The subway system in Boston dates back to the late 1800s, and New York's is not much better. Neither would be considered 'high speed'.)

We have a long history of waiting until an issue becomes a crisis before acting upon it. Planning and forethought is not our forte; not in a culture that considers next quarters financial report to be a long-term outlook. We must change this mindset if we are to address the problems facing us, be it Social Security, health care, alternate energy sources, or the nation's infrastructure. That is what I'd like to see from our presidential and congressional candidates in the next election. I'd like to see some vision for the future. I'd like to see some sign that our leadership is capable of looking beyond the next election, beyond what is making the headlines today, beyond what is driving the current poll numbers. I haven't seen it yet in my lifetime. Perhaps Katrina and Rita will be the wake-up call we need. Perhaps.


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