MDOT, EOC work to improve contraflow

Published 1:33 pm Thursday, September 11, 2008

Efforts are underway to improve the use of contraflow to evacuate south Louisiana and south Mississippi prior to the landfall of a hurricane by working to provide more restroom facilities and other services and to alleviate congestion with traffic control devices.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation met with Mississippi media and Louisiana television stations at the Pearl River County Emergency Management office Wednesday morning to address concerns about the implementation of contraflow during Hurricane Gustav.

Contraflow is initiated as part of an agreement between the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi and the plan was worked out by the two states’ transportation departments. A request from Louisiana is considered by Mississippi and if approved, contraflow is initiated.

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During Gustav contraflow there were problems with traffic, lack of restrooms and some services. County and transportation officials are working to fix those things.

So far, contraflow has been used twice, the first time was during Hurricane Katrina, said MDOT Special Projects Engineer for District 6 Sharpie Smith. He said contraflow during Hurricane Gustav had people leaving in record numbers, more so than for Katrina. Even though contraflow worked better during Gustav than during Katrina, Pearl River County District III Supervisor Hudson Holliday said county officials and MDOT are working to make it work even better in future.

“We’re all in this together … this is about all of us being Americans together,” Holliday said.

Some concerns dealt with closing of some routes out of Louisiana, such as Interstate 10 going east. The problem was that some Louisiana residents made arrangements in Florida to ride out Gustav, but were unable to get there with the interstate closed.

I-10 was closed during contraflow to keep motorists off the coastline, Smith said. Traveling along the coast line is unsafe for motorists during a hurricane evacuation since storms are unpredictable and can turn in any direction at the last minute. The plan is to get people to move north to safety.

Smith said people are free to take any route they wish before contraflow is implemented.

Back roads are a good way to go north, if people are familiar with them. However, people who have no history driving the county’s back roads can become lost. Maps were handed to the media outlets to attempt to inform Louisiana residents of alternate routes of evacuation. The back roads are utilized by locals in this county and could be an asset to those unfamiliar with the area, Smith said.

County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said those back roads should be used wisely because many do not have gas stations.

The possibility of implementing contraflow further north than the 21 mile marker in Pearl River County is only being considered. Smith said the reason it was not done during Gustav was because Hattiesburg is a hub city where a number of major roadways meet. The plan was to avoid causing gridlock in Hattiesburg. However, after the bottleneck at mile marker 21, motorists could still proceed north on I-59 to Hattiesburg.

To alleviate some congestion that occurs at the bottleneck, MDOT is considering using portable traffic lights to make merging smoother.

With reports of some evacuees using the side of the road to answer calls to nature, portable toilets were suggested as a way to help provide restrooms. Smith said the only problem he foresaw with that plan involved securing them so they would not blow over. Smith also did not want people attempting to camp at rest areas with portable restrooms in southern counties such as Pearl River County since they would not be out of danger.

One way to better inform evacuating motorists during contraflow would be to tap into the Louisiana radio stations, Lumpkin said. If information is shared with motorists by radio about clogged exits, lack or existence of supplies or fuel and where to go to use restrooms, then tensions would be lower, Smith said.

If evacuation is the only option during a hurricane, plans should be made to secure a full tank of gas and prepare snacks and food for the long trip. When towing a camper, it is best to leave early and avoid contraflow. If a motorist is involved in a minor fender bender during contraflow, it’s best to simply exchange driver and insurance information and keep traffic moving as opposed to calling out law enforcement, Smith said.