In Plans to Evacuate U.S. Cities, Chance for Havoc
The chaotic evacuations of New Orleans and Houston have prompted local officials across the country to take another look at plans for emptying their cities in response to a large-scale natural disaster or a terrorist attack. What they have found is not wholly reassuring.
From Los Angeles to Boston, from Seattle to Miami, plans to relocate, house and feed potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced people are embryonic at best and nonexistent at worst. As the exodus from Houston this week demonstrated, in many places highways would clog quickly, confusion would reign and police resources would soon be overtaxed. New Orleans offered a different and more deadly example of what could go wrong, as tens of thousands of people, many of them poor and lacking private transportation, could be left to fend for themselves in cities without basic services or law enforcement.
Most major American cities have made preparations for localized emergencies like fires, floods or large toxic spills that might involve the relocation of a few thousand or tens of thousands of people. Since Sept. 11, 2001, cities have received billions of dollars from the newly formed Department of Homeland Security to prepare for a major terrorist attack.
But few have prepared in detail for a doomsday possibility like Hurricane Katrina, the storm that engulfed New Orleans and left much of the city a wasteland. Nor have they prepared workable plans to evacuate millions of people with little or no notice, as the residents of the Gulf Coast of Texas learned to their dismay late this week. Officials in Texas are now struggling with how to manage the return of residents.
“Obviously, if you have no notice, it makes it that much more chaotic and confusing,” said Henry R. Renteria, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in California, the state’s top disaster-planning official. Evacuating a large urban area is difficult in the best of circumstances, Mr. Renteria said, but California’s geography and diverse population – many residents are newcomers, and more than 100 languages are spoken – make it doubly complicated here.
And no plan ever survives an encounter with reality, he said.
“I’m never satisfied with any plan we have in place,” Mr. Renteria said. “They have to be constantly looked at, constantly re-evaluated and constantly revised in light of the lessons learned from those who have been through this experience.”
New York, more than most American cities, has the advantage of a sprawling mass transportation system. Eight million people a day use the system, and officials count on it to be useful in an emergency as well. That could be vital, because city traffic, already a problem in an ordinary rush hour, would pose a significant challenge.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said the city has two general evacuation plans, one for hurricanes and another for terrorist attacks. The plans include the opening of hundreds of shelters, mostly in schools. But officials acknowledge that many elements of an evacuation would have to be improvised.
Los Angeles, the nation’s second-most-populous city, sits atop a spider web of earthquake faults, several of which could slip with devastating consequences, leveling large parts of the city and touching off widespread fires and explosions. But the city has no plan for moving and sheltering the large number of people who would be made homeless by such a disaster, officials concede.
“What happened in Houston is very significant,” said Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. “What they’ve demonstrated is the difficulties in evacuating that number of people. We’re a much larger area. If you’d ever have to evacuate that number of people here, there’s no question it would be problematic.”
Emergency response planners acknowledge that no plans exist for moving hundreds of thousands, and potentially millions, of Southern Californians out of harm’s way. “We’re going back to the drawing board,” said Sandra S. Hutchens, chief of the office of homeland security at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “With an earthquake or a major terrorist attack, we’d obviously have no warning. We haven’t looked at mass evacuation or temporary housing for hundreds of thousands of people.”
San Francisco’s evacuation plans depend in large part on the two main bridges that connect the city with Oakland to the east and Marin County to the north. Both are vulnerable to a major earthquake, as is the Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel beneath the bay. The plans call for the use of fishing boats and ferries to get people across the bay if other routes are blocked, a stopgap solution at best.
Philadelphia is also dependent on bridges and elevated highways to get people out in an emergency, and the city has drawn up no detailed plans for evacuation since early in the cold war, officials said. Gov. Edward G. Rendell has ordered every city in Pennsylvania to prepare for large-scale evacuations, with an emphasis on the large number of people in major cities who do not own cars.
Boston is further along than many large cities, having devised a plan in advance of last summer’s Democratic National Convention for moving as many as a million people from the central city in the event of an attack or a major storm. But exercises revealed some flaws in the plan, including inadequate public transportation and a shortage of temporary shelter away from the danger zone.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino has asked that the plan be updated to reflect the lessons learned in Texas and Louisiana.
Washington is one of the few cities that have tried to exercise a mass evacuation plan. Last summer, after the Fourth of July fireworks that annually draw a half a million or more people to the National Mall, the city used a system it devised to change the timing on stoplights on major arteries leading out of downtown.
“The purpose of the drill was to test our system, to test the assumptions underneath it,” said Edward D. Reiskin, Washington’s deputy mayor for public safety. The test revealed some glitches, but the drill was useful in gathering data.
The test was unrealistic in one respect, Mr. Reiskin said. The crowds leaving the Mall were confused, but not panicked. “It’s not exactly comparable to an emergency evacuation,” Mr. Reiskin said. “Human behavior, we’re certainly seeing now, is certainly a significant factor.”
Chicago officials were reluctant to discuss emergency evacuation plans in detail, citing security concerns. But Andrew Velasquez III, executive director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, said officials had identified senior housing, nursing homes and homeless shelters and had plans in place to transport their residents to safety in the case of an emergency. He also said the city had an automated telephone system capable of making 1,000 calls a second to alert residents of an evacuation order.
In South Florida, signs marking evacuation routes are posted along the coastline, and millions have had to flee hurricanes.
Carl Fowler, a spokesman for the Broward County Emergency Management Agency, said his county was better situated and better prepared for hurricanes than was New Orleans. Although Broward, a coastal county just north of Miami, is flat, it is above sea level, unlike parts of New Orleans. And the county has a number of east-west arteries that help coastal residents move quickly inland as a storm approaches.
Officials direct traffic toward shelters within the county and away from the state’s Interstate highways, Mr. Fowler said, to prevent the monumental and dangerous traffic jams that Texas had in advance of Hurricane Rita.
David Schulz, director of the Infrastructure Technology Institute at Northwestern University, said the evacuations of New Orleans and Southeast Texas had revealed significant weaknesses in coordination between the local, state and federal authorities. He also said that Texas’ experience showed poor communication between local officials and residents, tens of thousands of whom took to the already-jammed highways even though they were not under a mandatory evacuation order.
In Texas, officials acknowledged that they had perhaps overly alarmed residents, leading to an evacuation that proved larger than necessary. “It doesn’t make any sense to have a mass evacuation plan if you don’t tell anybody about it ahead of time,” Mr. Schulz said. “I do think that it’s important that public officials make the public aware in a very forthright and fairly location-specific way what the evacuation strategy is, and I think if we’ve learned anything the last three weeks, we’ve certainly learned that.” Autor: John M. Broder