Contraflow extended 31 miles north

Published 2:32 am Wednesday, May 27, 2009

With hurricane season comes the possibility of having to implement contraflow to aid with the evacuation of South Louisiana, and which can be an annoyance to local residents.

To help prevent some of those annoyances for the season that begins Monday, June 1, and to help evacuate more people from Louisiana, emergency officials in Louisiana and Mississippi met at the Interstate 59 Welcome Center in Pearl River County on Tuesday to announce a new contraflow plan. The new plan will include 31 more northbound miles on Interstate 59 before northbound traffic bottlenecks back into two lanes.

During times when congestion occurs on U.S. 11, which also runs north through Picayune and Poplarville, the exits into those two towns will be closed. Closures of the exits at those times is to ensure the safety of the residents in the local area, since emergency responders rely on U.S. 11 to travel south during contraflow, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Mike Womack said. Mississippi Department of Transportation Law Enforcement Director Willie Huff said that practice does not mean they are closing the exits to Louisiana evacuee traffic.

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Interstate 10 going east from Louisiana still will be closed during contraflow to keep motorists from traveling east, which puts them at risk, Womack said. Not only is there the problem of congestion of turning six lanes into four along that route, there is also the possibility of storm surge hitting the area.

Motorists with Twitter accounts will have access to up-to-the minute information concerning evacuation routes, Huff said. Rest areas, such as the Pearl River County Welcome Center, will remain open during contraflow.

These changes are a direct result of the lessons each agency has learned in previous hurricane evacuations where contraflow was used, said Bill Ankner, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary. While each use of contraflow in the past was successful in evacuating a large number of people quickly, it is still considered a last ditch effort to get people out of harm’s way.

Ankner hopes the preparations made for this hurricane season will cause minimal inconvenience if contraflow is needed.

MDOT Commissioner Steve Simpson said this new plan has been months in the making and will include not only those 31 additional miles, but put in place transportation law enforcement personnel to help local law enforcement agencies with traffic, security and search and rescue when needed.

Mike Edmonson, Louisiana State Police Superintendent, said efforts are in place to help motorists who have broken down, run out of gas or have forgotten supplies.

“Along with the most important thing, the ability to go to the rest room,” Edmonson said.

Preparation is still key. Coastal residents can check Web sites of each emergency agency for additional information concerning evacuation routes, and how to get by-the-minute information concerning each route via Twitter.

Womack said Twitter feeds will start in June.

Picayune Fire Chief Keith Brown said the decision to move the contraflow bottleneck 31 miles north will help get people where more supplies are available. Pearl River County Emergency Management Director Danny Manley said emergency responders have been working with local businesses to ensure local residents will have access to supplies and fuel.

Huff said contraflow now will end four miles south of Hattiesburg. Huff said moving the contraflow end-point north allows motorists access to other major highways, such as U.S. Highways 49 and 98. Bringing that end-point any further north is not an option at this point. Huff said the resources are not there since contraflow also is being used on Interstate 55.

However this plan is still under review for revision, Huff said.