Thursday, September 22, 2005

H-12: Friction

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.

Friction Points:

  • 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.


At September 23, 2005, Blogger J. said...

I was surprised by the infrastructure limitations you mention. In the Army's chem demil program, the local communities around the chemical stockpile sites put a lot of effort into examining evacuation routes and asking for federal dollars to broaden and improve said routes. I would have thought the same would have been done for Houston and Galveston.

At September 23, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...


I think the routes off Galveston Island are okay. But once you get out of Houston, IH-10 and US-290 are too narrow. I might be wrong on the need to increase the size, but perhaps we can look at some kind of project to improve the traffic flow. This hurricane thing will probably happen again.


At September 23, 2005, Blogger Gail said...

Kris, why do you think the nursing home bus was still on the highway today (Friday) when those people should have been cleared out on Wednesday? Is it the friction thing you've been talking about or do you think the private administrators screwed up?

At September 23, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...


It's a mixed bag on the nursing homes. Change in the storm track caused some of this.

And the fact is that there are a lot of really crappy nursing homes out there, especially in the rural areas. If they aren't run very well, then they are not going to be able to coordinate an evacuation. I'm going to research this a little better and do a follow up post.


At September 23, 2005, Blogger Brian Chabot said...

Any possibility of an RSS feed for this blog?



At September 23, 2005, Blogger Brian Chabot said...

Nevermind. Your blog already has an atom feed:

I'm syndicating it to LiveJournal. LJ users can now read your blog at

At September 23, 2005, Blogger Brett L said...

Kris -

As a man who grew up and learned to drive in and around Houston, I was wondering if EM officials made any attempt to close ramps or feeders, especially near the "choke points" where I-45, I=10, and 290 go from 4+ lanes in each direction down to 2? Those places are insane in daily rush hours, especially w/ people jumping off and running the feeder, then getting back on. It seems like officials could just close most of the ramps within 3-5 miles of those choke points and improve flow, but that's just me.

At September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Umm j. Highway 73 in Utah may have been widened (slightly) when the chem demil plant was built and the solar powered detectors were installed but there is a new city in Cedar Valley called Eagle Mountain and the population is ten times what it used to be or more. Highway 73 has traffic jams everyday. Hope there is not an accident.

At September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I've read several times in various places: Even local people who knew the back roads weren't allowed to use them. Apparently there are police roadblocks all over the place and people keep being funneled onto the already-gridlocked expressways. Maybe there's a good reason for this, but it's not apparent to me sitting safely in my warm and dry house over 1000 miles away.

At September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For my money, I would have closed the opposing inbound lanes and then called for evacuation. Anyone caught going the wrong way would have figured out quickly that they were the friction point. Moving traffic would not have needed the vast amount of fuel that was consumed.

At September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

I don't think you need to "look" at it, per se, they're already regulated into the ground as it is. You simply have to take into account that these facilities simply do not have the manpower or vehicles to move all of their patients at once, nor will they ever get them.

Requiring them to have them will put a lot of places out of business -- and then were will you find beds for those patients?

At September 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rickl said:

"Even local people who knew the back roads weren't allowed to use them."

Not generally true.

But some roads to the northeast of Houston were blocked, to try to limit the mingling and clashing of the evacuation streams from Houston/Galveston/Pasadena/Chambers Co. on the west and Beaumont/Port Arthur/Sabine Pass/Jefferson Co. on the east.

At September 23, 2005, Blogger CGrim said...

I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be very very very relieved when they come home to find everything still standing, with the exception of a few fallen branches in the yard

i could be wrong, but its just a hunch

At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent about 7 hours in the mobile traffic jam Wednesday night trying to get home from the Galleria to northwest Houston, then another 7 hours on Thursday after I got near home and had to turn around and go back in when I heard that they were going to make hwy 290 all one way as soon as the morning commute was over. I had some critical work that I had to finish before leaving town. I was one of those people who had to get back in - I think I might have been able to do it on the secondary streets, but if that were necessary, some police traffic direction would have helped.

After sitting in traffic and having plenty of time to think, I have several suggestions:

1. One of the biggest sources of problems was the number of older, poorly running cars and trucks that were being used by many of the evacuees. I saw numerous people on the side of the road, or worse: blocking traffic, while they dealt with overheated radiators. Most of them were obviously part of a 3 or 4 car convoy, all of whom stopped with them. I can certainly understand not wanting to leave your second and third cars to be ruined in a flood, but I don't think saving them justifies blocking and delaying approximately 10,000 or more vehicles behind you when they break down. Perhaps a vehicle permit system, with everyone's primary vehicle given an evacuation permit and the others available at increasing prices would help. Another approach might be to require you to find a driver and family w/o a vehicle to drive your third or fourth car if you really think it needs to be saved at everyone elses expense.

2. The gas problem was obviously not anticipated in the planning. Next time it will have to be prepared prior to actually having much certainty that a hurricane will actually strike. Certainly well before calling for an evacuation. In other words, whenever you do preplace gas, you will be risking a high probability of a false alarm. Most gas stations on the main evac routes must be required to have maximum gasoline supplies on hand and the refineries must load up and preplace as many tanker trucks as are available along the routes so that gas stations can be quickly be resuppled when they run out. All this entails a large financial risk for the gas stations and the refiners every time a hurricane looks like it might end up headed our way. The state government could indemnify them if they buy the gas high and end up selling it low because a projected hurricane doesn't materialize. A better approach would be a sporadicly operating hurricane futures market that would allow price hedging by anyone required to buy more than the usual amount of gas n anticipation of a possible hurricane. If it doesn't materialize and the gas must be sold for less than one paid for it the profit from the hedge would cover the selling loss on the gas.

At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nursing Homes/Assisted Living places are an achilles heel that will become worse as the babyboomers age.
It is correct that they are perhaps over-regulated now and caught between govt funding and govt regulations. They cannot get their people out of harm's way. The states through Medicaid programs must plan and finance such activities. They will have to have places to go and care to be given. That is too much for individual NH/AS organizations and must become the task of state governments.
Hurricanes are one of several calamities that should be planned for.

At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO: Alexander
RE: Real Planners

As some wag put it....

Amateurs study operations. Professionals study logistics.

This should make for an interesting after action report.



At September 24, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...

What are you people doing awake? : )


At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TO: Kris
RE: Why?

"What are you people doing awake? : )" -- Kris

Do code....



At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

As a former military emergency manager who read On War as a young NCO, I am ashamed that I never realized the sapplicaton of the principles to EM.

Good suggestions for improvements.

I had a breaktrhough as well..

State strategic fuel reserves. Each state should maintain its own state controlled fuel reserve that could be tapped for quickly replinishing gas stations in emergencies.

Major cities, like Houston, should also consider leasing 1 or more storage tanks for a local strategic fuel reserve.

At September 24, 2005, Blogger Charging Rhino said...

Even if you have the fuel in local distribution tanks, or even in the gas station's tanks; refueling cars indiviually one-by-one takes times. And unfortunatly, many who had sufficient fuel for the trip at highway speeds ran-out due to the hours of inching-along and idling in-place. One real problem in the open-spaces like Texas is that you need a full-tank just to get from city to city, even under normal conditions.

At September 24, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

Well, good luck with that. If you improve the roads to the point that they can take more traffic, you'll get more housing developments closer in to take advantage of the shorter commute during the normal times. You might be able to do it with toll roads that are free during these evacuations.

At October 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with the things you mentioned in your post. I have worked with Houston/Harris County EM people on a few high profile ops over the last 3 years (plus hurricane seasons), I tried to evac from Rita (without success), and I was in on the USCG response post-storm.

I've been thinking about possible remedies to the issues raised by the evac from Rita..and yes, I do believe DHS has a big role to play.

Here's my initial thoughts:
1)The counter-flow traffic lanes need to be opened WAY earlier....ahead of evac orders. In addition, special toll roads & HOV lanes on all main arteries (the Hardy Toll Road springs immediately to my mind) needs to be closed to any but emergency vehicles-- this will help move police, fire, and medical personnel into place earlier/easier.

2)The evac zones published by the state should be accompanied by little color-coded stickers that are issued along with vehicle registration stickers. They'd go right next to the state registration, and when a hurricane evac order is issued, only people in the area currently being evacuated are allowed to one else. The fact that only people in Zone 1 are able to leave is broadcast all over the media, and the police enforcing the counter-flow traffic lanes (opened in ADVANCE of the evacuations) check the stickers to ensure that only the right people are trying to leave.

3) Police command centers need to be set up at strategic areas in the city and staffed with people to direct traffic, develop situational awareness of the ground-truth at traffic choke points, and respond to problems as they arise. They should also be accessible by helicopter to move people in and out quickly, as well as facilitating Life Flight helos if necessary.

4)The city and county need to establish emergency contracts with the large fuel companies in the area and work out contingency plans to keep gas stations stocked along the highways.

Just my 2 cents...I can't wait to go to all the post-storm meetings for lessons learned...



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