We're roughly thirteen hours away from tropical force winds hitting the coast. That's "H" hour at which point evacuations are supposed to be over. I'm not sure if we're going to get there or not. We're being overcome by friction.
Army guys are fond of quoting old dead Germans. Here is what Clausewitz has to say about friction:
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war...
Friction is the only conception which, in a general way, corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper. The military machine, the army and all belonging to it, is in fact simple; and appears, on this account, easy to manage. But let us reflect that no part of it is in one piece, that it is composed entirely of individuals, each of which keeps up its own friction in all directions...
This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus facts take place upon which it was impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance, As an instance of one such chance, take the weather...
That's why I've been labeling problems friction points. You get lots of stuff and people moving in lots of directions, and things begin to heat up. The cumulative effect is what you are seeing on the Texas highways today. If no military plan survives contact with the enemy, then no emergency management plan survives a CAT4-5 hurricane.
Here's what I'm seeing.
- The Katrina Effect: People are afraid, and they're taking the evacuation seriously. This has created the largest evac in Texas history. The problem is that people who aren't in the surge zone, and were probably inland enough to weather the storm, are leaving as well. They are intermixed with the people who need to leave in order to survive. Everyone is afraid that they'll be the next NOLA when circumstances are different here in Texas.
- Storm Modeling: The weather guys are telling us that because Rita was so strong that it was hard to model. The track that we thought the storm was going to follow 36 hours ago is nothing like the actual track. This has driven evacuations in areas that aren't going to get hit as hard as we thought, and left people scrambling in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area scrambling.
- Situational Awareness: In a state this big, it's hard to know exactly what is going on. The fog of war. How "big" is "big" and how "bad" is "bad"? The military spends billions on intelligence systems so commanders and decision makers can visualize the battlefield. Billions more are spend on robust communications architecture. The primary means of communications and coordination within the state is the three times a day Texas Division of Emergency Management conference call. We need better systems. There has been reporting that the state was slow to make all the highways one-way to facilitate the evacuation. This is a big decision because it means that you might not be able to get things like ambulances back into the evacuation zone. Relying on CNN and phone calls from the field saying thousands are stranded doesn't give you enough info to make good decisions. I think DHS has a role to play in this. I'll be writing more on this later.
- Special Needs: Lots of resources are being pumped into getting special needs people out. The state is focusing most of its assets on nursing homes. There have been reports of inadequate planning in lots of these facilities. I think our lawmakers need to look at how these facilities are regulated.
- Fuel: Gas stations all along the evacuation route are out of gas. There are reports of "thousands" of cars out of gas on the highways. This might be a fault line in state and local planning. We need to surge fuel to the evacuation routes or maybe cache it along the way.
- Infrastructure: The evacuation highways don't have enough lanes. I think we need to invest in making these roads more robust. There just isn't enough roadway to support the traffic. Katrina and now Rita show us the folly of neglecting our infrastructure.
What's going to happen between now and H-hour?
The state has been scrambling to get supplies, buses, and fuel trucks to the evacuation routes. We've still got time, but the last thing anyone wants is citizens stuck on the highway when the winds hit.
Here in Austin, the shelter population is growing, but we've got lots of room left. I think we've done a great job of executing our part of the state's evac plan.
I still think the state had a good plan, and I think we've saved lots of lives with what we've done. There is already a lot of finger pointing in the media and blogosphere. Some of it is right on the money, and some of it is just politically motivated bullshit. There are non-political truths, but too many of us can't see them.
My assessment: The next twelve hours is make or break. The state and local governments are doing all they can. I'm not sure how its going to work out.
Just one point of clarification: I'm getting some traffic from some bigger sites (thanks Noah). I keep getting listed as a Texas Homeland Security guy. I used to be a "State of Texas" homeland security guy. A few months ago, I took a job as a "local" homeland security/emergency management guy in the Austin area. I worked for the state for years and am pretty wired into how they do business. I was in on a lot of the planning for state operations. Now, I'm working this disaster from a local level, but I have visibility of what is happening at the state level. Plus, I stayed at a holiday in express last night...
I just don't want anyone to be confused. Also, my view are mine alone. They don't reflect any official position, even if I'm right.