Traffic Jams Slow Rita Evacuation

9-22-05 - Houston has as lot more drivers than New Orleans, making for a crowded getaway as motorists flee southeastern Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita.

Residents of the Houston area have more than 2.7 million cars and trucks by the government's count. That is more than three-and-a-half times as many vehicles as there were in greater New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina devastated that region, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Highways leading inland from Houston were gridlocked and on some highways vehicles backed up for 100 miles as millions of residents heeded orders to evacuate.

"Texas has never seen anything like this," said Mike Cox, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. "Literally, millions of people are trying to get out. The roadways are all clogged up at unprecedented levels."

To help ease traffic snarls, Gov. Rick Perry early Thursday ordered a 130-mile stretch of Interstate 45 north of Houston to become a one-way highway out of the hurricane's path. Interstate 45 is the main highway between Dallas and Houston.

Local officials warned residents to get out, and told them they would not be rescued if they waited.

Getting out is not so simple for many residents. More than 83,000 households in Houston _ about 11.6 percent of the city _ had no vehicle as of 1999, according to the latest figures available from the Census Bureau. Throughout the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria metropolitan area, 127,000 households, or 7.8 percent, had no vehicle.

By comparison, 27.3 percent of households in New Orleans _ about 51,400 _ had no vehicle before Katrina hit the area, according to Census figures.

People unable to escape low-lying areas in Houston on their own were urged to call a city hot line, and Mayor Bill White said 10,000 people have called.

Throughout the night the city was sending buses to get them, but people were still told they needed to count on family, friends and neighbors.

"There will not be enough government vehicles to go and evacuate everybody in every area," White said. "We need neighbor caring for neighbor."