One justification for building the interstate highway system was the movement of military equipment and the evacuation of large cities threatened by nuclear attack. The interstates were authorized at the height of the Cold War. Not for nothing was this network known in the 1950s as the “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”
Last weekend, the movement of first responders was hampered by traffic jams in and around Oklahoma City. As for evacuation, forget about it. We were reminded that in emergencies, freeways don't offer rapidity. They become like parking lots in which thousands of vehicles line up at a single gate to pay the fee.
The roads became a killing field. Unlike the May 20 tornado, the May 31 outbreak claimed numerous lives of people in cars. Given the massive traffic jams, things could have been much worse.
Did TV storm trackers and meteorologists contribute to the problem, by encouraging people to flee if their homes lacked adequate shelters? Did the post-May 20 trauma and dire warnings lead more people to get on the roads and head home from work or toward better shelters, instead of staying put until the storms passed? Regardless of the answers to those questions, as a massive storm moved west to east across Oklahoma City, the freeway network was clogged and cars offered little defense from tornadic winds.
We won't join the chorus of second-guessers and offer acid criticism of local weather coverage teams. On balance, these people saved countless lives in May. The sense of panic extant Friday night likely had less to do with what they were saying than it did our own memories of May 20.
Nevertheless, we urge local weather teams to review what they did and said last week and map out a less chaotic, more thoughtful approach. Warnings save lives. Panic leads people to do foolish things.