Disaster Evacuation and Smart Growth Transcript
This is a full transcript of the presentation on the health effects of transportation planning after disasters.
This is a full transcript of the online presentation. For the
presentation itself, go here.
Hi, my name is Mitch Stripling, and today were going to talk about
some of the ways that transportation planning can improve health
outcomes in a disaster. A lot of the data well be discussing comes from
a report by Todd Litman for the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, and
so I want to thank him up front. You can link to full report from our
website. So, I want to tell you a story about a disaster youve surely
heard of. In that disaster, transportation services were overwhelmed,
many poverty stricken victims were unable to escape and were trapped in
their homes or in poorly maintained refugee camps. Reports of
lawlessness from those trapped victims, true or not, saturated the
American media, along with accusations on police brutality.
This was the scene in San Francisco in 1906, which is one of the first major
national disasters that occurred in a city that had anything like a modern
These scenes are taken from the Library of Congress American Memory
collection, shot by an unknown filmographer. They capture life in San Francisco
scant days after the earthquake and fire. The title cards talk about the modes
of transportation in use-horses, some cars, ferry boats, trolleys. In the
images, you can see a divide emerging. Those who have horses orespecially,
carsare freely mobile, while other victims literally pile onto each other to
catch the rare streetcar. Theres even a divide between wagons and streetcars,
with several victims per wagon, but only two in the occasional car. Look at the
last few seconds, all those bodies piled onto the streetcar. Wow. Already, this
divide between those with cars and those without is growing. In later disasters,
the barrier erected by automotive freedom would only get worse.
Think about Hurricane Katrina for example. Almost 2,000 dead, more than 1,400
in Louisiana. 720 in Orleans Parish alone. Many of the stories we heard about
substantial violence in the immediate aftermath of the storm have been
discredited. Many have not. Some of those stories well never know the truth
about. In any case, those would could not or would not evacuate were left in a
wasteland where transportation and communication had broken down, where looting
was rampant, and where conditions in shelters were neither safe nor comfortable.
Many of the deaths attributed to Katrina were so-called indirect deaths caused
by the stresses of living in these conditions. In public health, we care about
indicators. And being trapped in a situation like this after a major disaster is
about as clear an indicator as you can get of a negative health outcome. With
that said, the obvious question for transportation is, was the evacuation
successful? Did everyone get out that needed to?
This was Governor Blancos assessment of the evacuation plan in May of 2006,
well after the storm. With that time to reflect, she obviously believe that the
plan worked very successfully. So, lets address the question and see. Did it
"We had a very successful plan, a phased plan, and everyone who made a
decision to get out got out," she said. "The best way to save lives when
hurricanes threaten is to get out before the storm arrives." Evacuation News
Conference, May 2006
In some ways, yes. This image is from the New Orleans Evacuation plan. It
shows a system wherein all highways are re-routed to only go one direction. Its
called a contra-flow system and, in this case, New Orleans used a tiered
contra-flow system where different neighborhoods had different times to
evacuate. Thats a best practice meant to cut down on traffic issues and smooth
out the evacuation process. So, the answer to the question Does it work? Is the
same answer we get for the transportation system in many American cities: Sure,
it works, if you have a car.
.....Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to
transport themselves or who require specific life saving assistance. Additional
personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedures as needed." The
primary means of hurricane evacuation will be personal vehicles. School and
municipal buses, government-owned vehicles and vehicles provided by volunteer
agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack
transportation and require assistance in evacuating.
This is a texty slide, but it shows what the New Orleans Emergency Plan and
Transportation plan said about evacuating those without cars. The first piece
says that special arrangements will be made for those without vehicles. Its
important that those arrangements arent specified, because, in fact, they
didnt exist. New Orleans was in the process of recruiting charity groups to
find and volunteer to transport the disadvantaged. In August of 2005, one church
had signed up for the program. One townships instructions summed the process up
this way: Try not to think of it as evacuating; think of it as an opportunity
to visit a friend or loved one. Of course, for those without the resources for
such a visit, these are not comforting words.
These are a collection of news images from the Katrina evacuation. Could the
city have known what transportation issues were involved in the evacuation? Yes.
In 2002, the Journal of Transportation Engineers estimated that between two to
three hundred thousand residents of New Orleans didnt have access to reliable
personal transportation. This assessment was echoed in several other
publications. Moreover, in 2004, New Orleans evacuated in anticipation of a
possible strike by Hurricane Ivan. In that evacuation, it was determined that
100,000 people relied on city transportation. Could not evacuate without it, in
fact. Were there people who simply didnt want to leave their homes, or who were
discouraged by traffic on the roadways? Absolutely. But there were also those
who would have taken free transportation out of the city, gladly, thus lowering
the public health burden on the city as a whole.
That was Mayor Ray Nagin being interviewed on September 2nd, five days after
the storm impact. The picture above is one of the shots of flooded school busses
that were analyzed around the country. On Meet the Press, September 11, 2005,
Mayor Nagin clarified his position there were busses, but he didnt have enough
drivers to utilize them. As a planning lesson, then, the question is, Why
werent the drivers available? In the New Orleans Region Transit Authority plan
(quoting from Todd Litmans study), it specified that Drivers should evacuate
buses and other agency vehicles with their families and transit-dependent
residents, thereby protecting people and vehicles. This did not occur,
obviously. Mayor Nagin said that he felt evacuating victims to the Superdome
fulfilled this section of the plan. In fact, residents wanting to evacuate by
bus had to pay commercial rates. Now, whether or not there were enough buses,
the important planning consideration is to make sure that transportation staff
are designated as essential personnel and assured that their families will be
evacuated safely if they man their posts. That assurance is key to retaining the
high numbers of working staff you would need to conduct these evacuations.
Of course, now bus service is a vital part of life in New Orleans in another
way. For $35, you can take a twice daily Gray Line tour of the devastation.
Lets switch focus for a minute to discuss Hurricane Rita, which slammed into
Texas about three weeks after Katrina came ashore.
When Rita hit, a number of coastal cities had to be evacuated nearly
simultaneously, adding up to about three million people. The toll from hurricane
Katrina doubtless pushed that number higher than it would have been, and traffic
jams that extended scores of miles were the result. One positive improvement was
that fact that free bus service was offered to the coastal residents, with many
accepting the offer. You can see some of the buses used in the left-hand news
In another fit of text, here are some of the main issues encountered during
the Rita evacuation. Two of the main issues go straight back to that essential
services designation: Many TSA screeners in coastal airports didnt report to
work in order to evacuate themselves, slowing the air evacuation, and an already
critical fuel situation was exacerbated by fuel truck drivers that did the same.
In this case, the town sequencing plan for the evacuation wasnt followed, which
increased the traffic. Finally, authorities decided to contra-flow, but then
changed their minds in order to continue sending resources into the targeted
cities. This caused heightened confusion.
A real bright spot in the evacuation was the service of the Houston METRO
Transit Authority, which evacuated 20,000 people using 1,000 vehicles on 4,500
trips. More importantly, perhaps, they continued sweeping the city for residents
who might make a last minute decision to evacuate. Having a proactive transit
authority with the capacity to respond was a key factor in a smooth evacuation
for Houston, which leads us to a key question for planners.
Smart Growth is an urban planning strategy focusing on mixed-income,
mixed-use neighborhoods that promote walkability and decrease dependence on
individual automobiles by increasing the density of the population, i.e. having
more people less, more vibrant space. Some emergency management stakeholders
have criticized it recently by asking questions like this: What if New Orleans
had been as dense as a city like San Francisco? With fewer cars and more people,
wouldnt the outcome have been worse? (This example from
http://www.rentalcartours.net/ which is not a rental company)
I think that the example of Houston shows us that the answer is a clear No.
This is the official bus system map of the city of Houston. While its true
that Houston is a much larger city that New Orleans, it is also substantially
more dense. In recognition of this fact, Houston has evolved a much stronger
bussing system, which gave it additional capacity during the Hurricane Rita
evacuation. To me, this is indicative of the fact that density is not the enemy
of evacuation. In fact, since density often builds infrastructure, density can
support evacuation efforts. This is only true, of course, if a city has built up
its capacity to a strong level, as Houston has.
The density that smart growth fosters can create stronger neighborhoods, too.
When a neighborhood shares access to transportation infrastructure, community
centers and local businesses, it builds a connection between community members
that has been shown to help reduce morbidity after disasters and to increase
positive public health indicators. This connection strengthens the communitys
resilience-- its ability to spring back after a disaster. This collage is
called Neighborhood 2 by Maria Cavacos. To me, it shows a dense and vibrant
community; the kind any good evacuation plan tried hard to save.
So, lets go over some best practices to plan that evacuation. First, lets
do some math. If you assume about 1,000 cars per lane per hour under mass
evacuation conditions and assume that each car has about 2.5 passengers, that
means that a city with two four lane highways and a million evacuees would take
about 50 hours to evacuate. Thats with both highways under full contraflow. Let
me say that again. 50 hours to evacuate a million people from an urban area. For
a hard storm strike on a major urban area, thats just not enough time.
Now, adding even one dedicate bus lane to that mix will cut your evacuation
time in half. In half. This is true even though busses may only carry half of
their capacity during a disaster (because of luggage, equipment, etc.). Even
with that, 600 busses per lane per hour means 15,000 evacuees per hour per lane.
This is a huge improvement. Enforcing HOV lanes and adding urban light rail (if
functional) to the mix can decrease the total evacuation time substantially.
There are several stories that Amtrak offered use of a train for evacuation that
was not accepted by local officials.
Other smart growth principles can be helpful for emergency management
functions, too. During the 2004 Oakland fires, several fatalities were recorded
from victims who tried to evacuate by car and were caught in a firestorm.
Walking evacuees were successful, in that instance. After an event, smart growth
principles of neighborhood organization may also help with search and rescue by
shrinking the geographic area to be covered. Fewer cars, of course, also means
fewer cars on the road, particularly families trying to evacuate all of their
cars from an area.
So, there are several lessons that planners can glean from these experiences.
Planners need to be involved with evacuation planning, and the evacuation should
be analyzed from a public health perspective. That means, you know, think about
the health of the evacuees as theyre traveling-food, emergency services-and
their health once they arrive-do they have safe and secure destinations adequate
to their numbers? In that planning process, make sure you designate your
transportation personnel as essential and pre-confirm their families for
evacuation, if needed. Bring bus and rail services into the mix early. As of
October, 2007, only five American cities have designated pickup sites for an
evacuation by bus. Miami is one of them. This is a best practice to consider, so
that the public gets familiar with the process for evacuation. Finally, keep in
mind the complexities of contra-flow management, including tiered neighborhoods
and moving supplies into the area.
This is a painting by Zeal Harris, Katrina Evacuation. In it, you can see
that the difference between the mass of folks caught in the event (foreground)
and those that have escaped is the transportation system. Use it well, promise
families safe and comfortable places to recover at the other end, and its a
lifeline to good life and good health. Use it poorly and it becomes a wall,
trapping victims in a dire situation full of negative indicators for health.
Mitch Stripling Preparedness Education Coordinator, EH