While a hurricane announces its presence days in advance, strategic evacuation protocol cannot be overlooked.
Factors such as areas prone to weather risks to the angle of a hurricane to the time of day to even one’s ZIP code are considered in determining when and how to evacuate, Galveston’s Chief of Emergency Management Mark Morgan said.
“What we try to do is evacuate ahead of the tropical force winds as they come ashore; we don’t go by the eye, we go outward to where the tropical force winds start,” Morgan said. “So, we want to time our evacuation to whenever those winds start to hit the shoreline. We want to make sure everybody is out by then.”
When conditions become favorable for the formation of a hurricane, the National Weather Service will issue coastal residents a “hurricane watch.” Should this weather pattern evolve into a hurricane, a city’s mayor or the county judge decides whether to call for an evacuation.
A decision to order an evacuation would typically be made 48 to 72 hours in advance of tropical force winds reaching the shore, Morgan said.
During severe weather, a city can call for either a voluntary or mandatory evacuation. Typically, a voluntary evacuation applies to residents in areas susceptible to weather risks — such as the Bolivar Peninsula or the West End of Galveston, Morgan said.
“What that would do is allow folks to leave the West End and lower areas and stay in hotels or stay with family members up in the higher elevations,” Morgan said.
“That would be a scenario where it would be a tropical storm, tropical depression or a very low Category 1 hurricane. Anything higher than that, we would probably call for a mandatory evacuation of the entire island.”
A mandatory evacuation would be ordered for more severe weather that would threaten everyone in a city. Under a mandatory evacuation, evacuations take place in stages based on residents’ respective ZIP codes — with those living in ZIP codes closest to the coast and with the lowest elevations evacuating first, and so on.
“If we don’t use the proper stages in the evacuation process, then everyone ahead of us is going to clog up the roadways, and then will be stuck on the Gulf Coast with no way to get out,” Morgan said.
Once people reach the mainland, there are three primary evacuation routes in Galveston County away from the Gulf Coast: Interstate 45, state Highway 146 or state Highway 6. Bolivar Peninsula residents can take state Highway 87 to state Highway 124. Those particular routes are recommended, but aren’t mandatory, Morgan said.
“We learned during Hurricane Rita that there are just too many people to get out, so you have to allow folks to go the way that they know how to go as the best way to get out,” Morgan said.
In some cases, evacuations can stall traffic for several hours, so it is recommended evacuees should have a full tank of gas and any supplies needed for a long road trip.
Depending on the circumstances, traffic flow on southbound lanes may be reversed to allow more people to escape an incoming storm.