Walter E. Williams
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Evacuations are not a benign process. Twenty-four people were killed when a bus carrying 38 Houston nursing home residents and six employees caught fire in a traffic jam. It's thought that oxygen tanks used by elderly evacuees had a role in the fire. Given the hurricane predictions for Houston and Galveston, one can't blame officials for ordering evacuations, but the lesson to be learned is evacuations can be costly. In addition to injuries and loss of life, when evacuations are ordered, there are costs associated with opportunistic criminal behavior such as looting, which there were reports of in Houston.

 Hurricane Rita provided us with another evacuation lesson as millions sought to leave Houston and Galveston. Gasoline stations ran out of gas leaving hundreds of motorists stranded. Many abandoned their cars. Police officers were deployed to carry gas to motorists whose tanks were empty. Texas authorities also asked the Pentagon for help in getting gas to stranded motorists. Much of the blame for the shortage rests at the feet of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who recently ordered that penalties of up to $20,000 be imposed per incident of price-gouging. You say, "How come you blame Greg Abbott?" Let's look at it.

 When the hurricane evacuation order came, there was an immediate change in the demand conditions for gasoline; namely, demand became much greater than the available supply. Retailers, in fear of prosecution by the attorney general, didn't do what would have brought demand more in line with the available supplies of gasoline -- raise prices.

 Suppose a family evacuating Houston chose to make a 146-mile drive to stay with relatives in Austin. Their car has a half a tank of gasoline -- plenty to get to Austin -- but just to be safe, they decide to fill up. What do you think they might do if they expected to pay $2.75 a gallon but when they got to the gas station they found the gas selling for $3.75? I bet they'd say, "The heck with that; we'll fill up in Austin." That's wonderful; they've voluntarily made gas available for someone running out of gas. In my book, for a motorist who's running on empty, gas available at $3.75 a gallon is preferable to gas being unavailable at $2.75 a gallon.

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Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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