Contraflow is a good idea, but it needs to be given more thought

Published 1:07 pm Monday, September 15, 2008

The Mississippi Department of Transportation and Pearl River County officials held a press conference the other day to discuss contraflow and how to improve it, but while a few ideas were tossed out, apparently they remain just ideas and don’t address what is probably the major problem on Interstate 59 — where it ends.

For anyone who may not know, contraflow is a plan to evacuate south Louisiana and south Mississippi in advance of an approaching major hurricane. The idea is to turn all four lanes of the interstates going out of the potentially affected region into one-way traffic corridors. In the case of Interstate 59 through Pearl River County, that’s four lanes going north.

The major problem obviously is where contraflow along I-59, and I can address only I-59 since that is the part of contraflow I’m familiar with, is that it ends, less than 100 miles north of New Orleans, which is the focal point of the area needing to be evacuated along that route.

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MDOT gives the excuse that it ends so quickly because I-59 passes through Hattiesburg, a major transportation hub, and it would be a disaster to end it there.

Frankly, if the idea is to evacuate nearly 2 million people from a region, then to end contraflow in Hattiesburg would be to end it too quickly. Contraflow along I-59 probably should go all the way to the Alabama line, east of Meridian. If MDOT doesn’t want to carry it that far, then it should be carried at least as far as Ellisville or Laurel in Jones County.

The dumbest idea tossed out at the press conference the other day was to direct the contraflow traffic on I-59 to secondary roads in Mississippi, roads that local traffic has to use since it certainly can’t use I-59. We were already seeing traffic jams in and around Picayune during contraflow because of people getting off the interstate even before MDOT and the county supervisors so stupidly handed out maps to the Louisiana media to help direct traffic onto these already crowded “back roads.”

Probably the best idea voiced at the meeting was to setup portable toilets for those using contraflow to keep them from having to go to the woods. Someone was worried, though, that if that is done, then some folks might decide to camp out at Mississippi rest stops.

There’s an easy solution to that. Put either Highway Patrolmen, other law enforcement personnel or National Guardsmen at those stops to prevent people from trying to camp out. Then promptly remove the portable toilets when contraflow ends and force the evacuation of any traveler still at the rest stops. Finally, close off the rest stops with barriers until after the storm passes and periodically have law enforcement check them for campers.

Other ways to make the evacuation go more smoothly would be to arrange in advance for fuel distributors to step up fuel distribution to gas stations at and near the contraflow route.

I would suggest limiting contraflow traffic only to a small area around the exits to preserve the back roads for the local traffic that is going to be forced to use those roads for the duration of contraflow, but I can hear the screams already, especially from the crybaby Times-Picayune that moaned and groaned so loudly that everyone was picking on poor Louisianans during the contraflow when everyone was doing their best to help the evacuees, with no help from The Times-Picayune.

The Times-Picayune would better serve its readers by helping them to be prepared for contraflow by advising and reminding them to fill up with gas in advance and to carry plenty of snacks and books and games for children and other non-drivers to occupy themselves in a long and weary process for everyone.

We are still in a learning process with this contraflow thing. Gustav was only the third time it had been tried. The first time, I think it was for Ivan, showed MDOT how quickly Hattiesburg could become a gigantic traffic jam, though it didn’t help MDOT’s engineers and leaders fully think through how to handle that. Those non-thinkers just moved the traffic jam about 30 or 40 miles south of Hattiesburg, stopping contraflow in Pearl River County south of Poplarville and then shrugged their shoulders at the traffic jam that developed there.

No, we haven’t touched on the other major problem with contraflow and that’s what to do should an evacuation be required more than once in a year, which Hurricane Rita, following Katrina in 2005 showed us was possible. Hurricane Ike this year was a scary reminder that didn’t require evacuation, but the hurricane season isn’t over and many who evacuated for Gustav have said they don’t think they can afford to evacuate a second time this year.

The best evacuation plans and routes in the world are no good if people can’t use them because they can’t afford to evacuate, but the solution to that problem will have to be a federal one. The solution could involve everything from opening military bases to house evacuees to providing some sort of reimbursement for some of the money evacuees have to spend.

At some point it’s a problem that will have to addressed, just as problems with the evacuation routes are being addressed.