Planning, training and coordination in the years since hurricanes Katrina and Gustav hit have translated into a much smoother evacuation process when storms threaten south Louisiana.
Evacuation is not a decision taken lightly. It means disruption of lives and extra expenses for families who have to leave home and head into snarled traffic.
However, just as the state agencies have worked to be better prepared for future evacuations, individuals can make the process easier by making plans before a storm arrives.
“It is so important to have your own personal game plan for what you’re going to do if local officials call for an evacuation,” said Chris Guilbeaux, deputy director of preparedness, response and interoperability with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “Personal responsibility is the No. 1 thing we preach all year.”
Families should plan early for things like where the family will go if an evacuation is called, what to take and how to make sure to pack essentials like medication, pet food and important documents.
Evacuation efforts are coordinated through a number of agencies, including the state Department of Transportation and Development, State Police and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
The evacuation plan is based on getting people moved as quickly and as efficiently as possible out of the areas of the state that are subject to flooding.
“The evacuation process is initiated by the local governments,” said Steve Glascock, head of the intelligent transportation systems program at DOTD, but there is a lot of coordination with the statewide plan for evacuating.
Known as the 50, 40, 30 plan, the statewide evacuation plan is done in phases, with coordination provided by local governments.
At 50 hours before tropical force winds are expected to arrive, areas of the coast that are generally south of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway begin evacuating. The next phase is at 40 hours before tropical force winds are expected, and when people who live between Interstate 10 and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway are evacuated. Finally, at 30 hours before the winds are to hit, efforts are focused on evacuating the urban areas of Jefferson and Orleans parishes.
Depending on conditions, it’s possible that contraflow would be triggered in the third phase — from 30 hours to six hours out, he said.
Contraflow is where authorities change the direction of highway lanes to aid in the evacuation of people during a major disaster, for instance, changing the direction of Interstate 55 to all lanes headed north.
However, contraflow is not always necessary, and so far, it’s only been instituted three times — Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
Guilbeaux said that, in retrospect, contraflow during Hurricane Gustav may not have been necessary because by 30 hours out, there were no cars on the road. Everyone, he said, had already left.
“Leave as early as possible. Don’t wait until the last minute,” Glascock said. Also, he said, it’s important to plan the route ahead of time and look at using alternate roads, including U.S. 90, U.S. 61 or U.S. 190.
DOTD also has the ability to manipulate traffic signals on some of the main roads to help move traffic along during an emergency.
It does this by extending the time each traffic light remains green.
Contraflow efforts improved even in the three years between hurricanes Katrina and Gustav thanks to better coordination within Louisiana state agencies and between Louisiana and other states, Glascock said.
Another improvement is in the ability of DOTD to collect real-time information from the increased number of road cameras.
DOTD’s Intelligent Transportation Systems program went from less than 100 cameras in 2005 to more than 600 cameras now.
“It allows us to monitor, real-time, practically all the interstate highways,” Glascock said.
During an evacuation, DOTD also deploys its Motorists Assistance Patrol along the routes to help with car breakdowns, he said.
Normally, there are 13 patrol vehicles that can help change a flat tire, fill a radiator with water or provide other assistance.
During a coastwide evacuation, he said, DOTD can call in contracts that will put 50 of the vehicles on the road, especially in key locations like Interstate 10 over the Bonne Carre Spillway and the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.