After New Orleans crisis, cities rethink evacuation strategies

Moving neediest residents a key issue, officials say

Katrina's Wake

September 12, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The failure to evacuate New Orleans' most vulnerable residents before Hurricane Katrina struck is causing city leaders nationwide to rethink plans for the mass movement of people unable to escape on their own in a catastrophe.

Like many cities, New Orleans had such an evacuation plan. City officials knew that approximately 100,000 city residents had no personal transportation, and their intent was to use public buses to ferry them to safety.

It was a plan filled with flaws, and New Orleans officials knew it.

A test of the plan last summer during a simulated Category 3 hurricane revealed that as many as 300,000 people might remain trapped in the city, many for lack of private transportation, according to a report by Louisiana State University. A national review of hurricane evacuation plans by the university's Hurricane Center in 2001 determined that plans to use buses, especially in New Orleans, were inadequate because existing fleets could accommodate only a fraction of those needing help.

As Katrina bore down on New Orleans two weeks ago, little had been done to fix that shortage, experts said. New Orleans' plan called for about 500 city and school buses to hit the streets. But it did not include provisions for driving people out of the city. Instead, the few buses that made the rounds at 12 pickup points simply delivered the poor, the disabled and the elderly to the Superdome, which had inadequate provisions.

One major problem was that the plan contained no details for deploying drivers, especially those who pilot school buses, said Chester Wilmot, an LSU professor who consulted on the city's plan. In addition, the plan neglected to designate shelter outside New Orleans.

"It failed," Wilmot said. "The plan didn't go into the detail that is necessary."

The statewide plan in Louisiana for evacuating people with access to private transportation was a success, however, guiding 800,000 to 1 million people to safety outside New Orleans.

"Overall, without a doubt, anywhere in the world, it's the poor who are most at risk and who suffer the most in disasters," said E.L. "Henry" Quarantelli, of the Disaster Research Center, who has studied disasters for more than a half-century.

Vincent T. Gawronski, a consultant for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said cities must have a better grasp on where the poor, disabled and elderly residents live before disasters strike.

"You should figure out how to get them out first," said Gawronski, also a professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. "If we do have some large-scale biological, radiological or terrorist attack, we wouldn't do very well with evacuation."

Experts point to south Florida - with its large population of elderly and its vulnerability to frequent hurricanes - as a model for workable evacuation plans.

Officials in Broward County, Fla., constantly update a database of people with disabilities who would need to be picked up in an evacuation. People are encouraged to register with the county throughout the year.

"We know where the most vulnerable people are," said Carl Fowler, a training coordinator and spokesman for Broward's Emergency Management Agency.

When an evacuation order is issued, specially equipped buses scatter to pick up those who have registered and deliver them to shelters. For others without access to private transportation, the county advertises that all public buses will pick up at all stops and deliver people to shelters. The buses continue their rounds until winds hit 45 mph.

Because the threat of hurricanes is routine, south Florida communities have had more practice at honing their plans, which is also critical for effective evacuations, say experts.

"You don't put a plan on your shelf and pull it off when you have an emergency," said David Robertson, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "It has to be an ongoing piece of work. It has to be tested and drilled."

Most local governments, including those in Maryland, lack such practical experience and are likely to see their evacuations of vulnerable populations fall far short if terrorists or natural disasters strike, experts say.

If a city, like New Orleans, can't evacuate successfully with the advance warnings of meteorologists, an unexpected incident, such as a terrorist attack, could increase the odds of failure.

"It's a new reality," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "I want to make sure we don't leave people behind like they were left behind down there" in New Orleans.

Duncan convened a conference call last week of members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, including Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The group agreed to conduct a wholesale review of its emergency response plans, including the use of buses for evacuation.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his regional county partners also spoke last week and decided to begin work on new disaster plans.

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