Houston's last hurricane evacuation? A deadly traffic jam, 2.5 million strong

By Jared Gilmour

Recent memories of Hurricane Katrina sent people scrambling to prepare for Hurricane Rita. (Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA)
Recent memories of Hurricane Katrina sent people scrambling to prepare for Hurricane Rita. (Photo by Ed Edahl/FEMA) FEMA/Wikimedia Commons

It was 100 degrees, but drivers turned off their air conditioners to preserve precious gasoline.

The unlucky ones whose cars ran out of gas sat stranded on the side of the highway, or left their vehicles behind altogether. Abandoned vehicles along the shoulder made the 100-mile traffic jam — which lasted more than a day for some — that much worse. Dozens lost their lives, including 24 nursing home residents whose bus caught on fire, as well as others in accidents and from heat stroke.

That’s what happened the last time 2.5 million Houstonians attempted to leave their city en masse, according to NPR, back in 2005 ahead of Hurricane Rita’s landfall. And that story helps explain Houston leaders’ decision not to order mandatory evacuations of the city before Hurricane Harvey struck southeast Texas as a Category 4 storm late last week.

“You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference last week, explaining the city’s decision not to call for a mandatory evacuation. “If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare.”

After Rita hit, the storm’s direct death toll was less than 10 people, according to NPR. Compare that to the dozens who died in the exodus from Houston on its clogged interstate arteries.

It was some of the worst traffic in U.S. history, according to the Houston Chronicle, and the worst that the city of Houston had ever experienced. And with day-long drives, some people let road rage get the best of them.

Annoyed with the car in front of her, a woman from Texas City bumped the car with her own vehicle, according to the Houston Chronicle. When the car in front of her pulled over, the driver, a woman from Pearland, Texas, got out of her vehicle. Then the Texas City woman started hitting her, possibly breaking her arm, police said.

“The victim declined to go to the hospital. She didn't even want an ambulance,” Katy Texas Police Chief Bill Hastings told the Houston Chronicle in 2005 — she just wanted to keep evacuating.

Hurricane Katrina had decimated New Orleans, leaving more than 1,000 dead, just three weeks before Hurricane Rita, according to the Houston Chronicle. Forecasts predicted Rita could hit Houston as directly as Katrina had hit New Orleans, prompting a mass exodus from the city.

But by the time Rita reached Texas shores, it had faded to a Category 3 storm, ultimately causing only $12 billion in damage, according to Quartz—a far cry from the $100 billion it took to recover from Katrina.