Gridlock Hampers Texas Evacuation Efforts

Those in the path of Hurricane Rita are trying to flee, but for many in Houston the way out has been made difficult because of traffic gridlock. Abandoned vehicles littered the roadway as people ran out of gas and were forced to pull off the road.

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The struggle of a mass evacuation now stretches out hundreds of miles from Houston, Texas. This morning, a bus caught fire as it carried evacuees toward Dallas. It was full of nursing home patients and authorities say two dozen people were killed. Later in the morning, investigators allowed the charred remains of that bus to be moved off the highway. They had to clear the way for even more people getting out of the path of Hurricane Rita. In all, about two million residents have been told to leave the Gulf Coast, and despite the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, the evacuation of the largest city in Rita's path, Houston, has not gone well. NPR's John McChesney is there.

JOHN McCHESNEY reporting:

Lumbering across the Gulf of Mexico at nine miles an hour, Hurricane Rita is moving faster than the hundreds of thousands trying to get out of her way on jammed Texas highways. In searing 100-degree heat, cars crept up north I-45, windows down, air conditioning off to save precious gasoline. The traffic jam stretched for over 100 miles and has been going on for over a day and a half. The evacuation has become a disaster in its own right. Gasoline was not to be found along the interstate and cars that ran dry made the gridlock even worse. Abandoned vehicles littered the shoulder lanes.

Alice Beloff(ph) is in a three-car caravan with all of her family. Towels hang in the window to keep the hot sun out.

Ms. ALICE BELOFF: And we've been here for six hours. We left at 6:00 this morning. I don't want to run out of gas and have to pull off the road, so I'm going to wait it out with the heat.

McCHESNEY: The Texas transportation authorities eventually opened the southbound lanes to northbound traffic and Texas highway troopers took gas to some, but it was, in a phrase, a drop in a bucket. Texas Governor Rick Perry said that tank trucks would deliver gas along the highway, but no one could say when they might arrive. Houston Mayor Bill White said it was essential to get the jam cleared before heavy rains and wind begin Friday afternoon.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston): If the hurricane comes in at a particular angle and a particular location, being on the highway is a death trap. And we need to make these evacuation plans and get people moving before the very dangerous winds hit. And we will.

McCHESNEY: Harris County Judge Robert Eckles said that city Metro buses would be loaded with water to deliver to parched motorists. He called for volunteers to help.

Judge ROBERT ECKLES (Harris County, Texas): These are volunteers who will be needed that will be loading water, cases of water, on Metro buses and then riding with those buses to help distribute that water along the various freeways to folks who may be stranded while they're waiting for the traffic to clear out.

McCHESNEY: And in light of the colossal traffic jam, Mayor White said that the time for leaving the city had passed. Inside the city of Houston, gas could be found, but it took a lot of persistence. At a rundown Shamrock station just south of downtown, a line of cars snaked out into the street. Tempers flare in the hot humidity. A distraught woman attempts to cut into the line, and the man in front relents.

Unidentified Man: What's the point? I'll give you a chance to butt. Go ahead and butt. Butt in front of me.

McCHESNEY: Melissa Hemet(ph), five cars back in the line, says she stumbled onto this station by accident.

Ms. MELISSA HEMET: Luck of the draw actually. This is the ninth gas station I've attempted. I was actually waiting at another gas station for approximately 45 minutes; got up to the tank and they ran out of gas.

McCHESNEY: Missy Houtland(ph) says she now agrees with the mayor. It's riskier to leave than to stay.

Ms. MISSY HOUTLAND: It would take longer to get out of town. People are waiting out, you know, 24 hours on the highways. So I've decided to stay.

McCHESNEY: To the south of Houston, toward Galveston, all along I-45 are miles of deserted shopping malls with their huge empty parking lots illustrating the massive exodus. And the island city of Galveston itself is almost a ghost town. Police cars cruise the deserted streets to guard against looting. Governor Perry says that 5,000 National Guard troops will be in the Houston area by Saturday and he's also asked for an additional 10,000 federal troops.

John McChesney, NPR News, Houston.

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