THE MAGAZINE

Mass Evacuation: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

By Joseph Straw

The debacle in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina revealed inadequacies in emergency response capabilities at the local, state, and federal levels, among them the lack of capability to effect rapid mass evacuations. A new study looks at 37 large U.S. cities to see how their ability to get citizens out quickly in a disaster might be affected by factors such as geography, population density, roads, and residents’ access to automobiles. The metropolitan areas that would face the greatest challenges in mass evacuations, according to the study: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, and San-Francisco-San Jose.

The cities that fared best in the study enjoy the advantage of being essentially landlocked, allowing residents to evacuate in all directions. The top-scoring cities were Kansas City, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; Pittsburgh; and Indianapolis.

The study was commissioned by the American Highway Users Alliance, the lobby representing the automobile and commercial busing industries, and the survey’s scope was limited in that it did not include cities’ specific plans or procedures for mass evacuations.

The study places Miami among the cities facing the greatest evacuation challenges, due primarily to the city’s location at the end of a peninsula. Authorities in South Florida, however, have considerable experience with mass evacuations. Officials provide instructions that keep as many residents as possible off the region’s clogged highways, especially during hurricanes, says Chief Bob Palestrant, acting director of Miami-Dade County’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

All major U.S. cities have made some cursory efforts to educate their citizenry both on the need to stay put until instructed to leave and on the basics of evacuation, including preparation of a “go bag” with basic provisions such as a small AM/FM radio. Cities are exploring how they would instruct their populations in an emergency, such as through a reverse 911 call or via the broadcast media.

City officials in both New York and Chicago told Security Management that emergency managers have plans to mobilize public transportation assets, including both bus and rail, to move large numbers of people in a way that might help minimize road congestion.

All mass transit operators in the Chicago area are “part of our plan, and they would be able to help move people very quickly and very effectively,” says Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Andrew Troisi, spokesman for the New York City Office of Emergency Management, says that “We plan to leverage public transit in any mass evacuation where possible.”

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