Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have demonstrated that, even with ample warning, natural disasters pose two problems when it comes to evacuating a city in peril: what to do when residents refuse to leave, and what to do when they all leave at once.
In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina provided evidence of a storm’s capacity for carnage when people cannot, or will not, get out. But on Thursday, as Hurricane Rita moved toward the Texas coastline, it became clear that another kind of chaos ensues when tens of thousands of residents get onto roads that can barely handle rush hour, much less a mass exodus.
Traffic stretched for miles as residents tried to flee Houston and Galveston, with cars running out of fuel and gas stations running low on supplies. A 50-mile drive that might have taken one hour took 10 hours or more. State and federal officials were preparing to distribute fuel to stranded motorists.
The disorder trained a light on the problem faced by disaster planners as America learns to live with the threat of terrorist attacks as well as natural calamities. And those who study the nation’s transportation systems say progress has been slow in coming.
“Most transportation plans in urbanized areas are developed around the daily trip to work. But you get something like Hurricane Rita and it’s pretty impractical to think we could build enough capacity to handle the large number of people all going in the same direction at the same time,” said Ed Mierzejewski, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa, Fla.
It takes more than 24 hours to clear a major urban area, as was learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when commuters and residents fled New York City, and Washington sent federal employees home all at once. Traffic choked over bridges, through tunnels and on roads. Thousands gave up and walked miles.
After that, President Bush ordered the creation of a National Incident Management System, or NIMS, which requires every jurisdiction to have an emergency management plan. The plans were to be based on a model developed in California after the deadly Oakland Hills fire of 1991, and they were to coordinate with surrounding communities’ efforts so that a city’s plan didn’t run headlong into a state’s. The plans were also to be practiced regularly.
But cash-strapped local governments have been slow to comply because devising and rehearsing drills costs millions, said Rod Diridon Sr., executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, which specializes in counterterrorism and emergency response.
In a perfect NIMS-protected world, every city would have a plan and practice it at least once a year, requiring officials from the mayor on down to sit at a large table with computers and phones and simulate a disaster -- a New York terrorist attack, a San Francisco earthquake, a Florida hurricane.
Agencies in some areas -- mostly those that have experienced a disaster, like the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system -- make such drills a priority.
“BART does it religiously. The New York City Transportation Authority does it religiously,” Diridon said.
But other agencies cannot afford to practice. “I have to stress: This is one that cannot be delegated to local government. The money is not there,” Diridon said. Still, federal help is unlikely given the Iraq war, reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina and the potential cost of Hurricane Rita.
Disaster managers have adapted with such solutions as permitting traffic on two-way roads to run in one direction -- out of town -- as some Texas cities did Thursday. But urban populations have grown faster than transportation systems. Planners dream of designs that factor emergency response into infrastructure improvements, but those cost money.
“We need to be looking at long-range plans, building in more capacity to take people away from the coastal areas in extreme events,” Mierzejewski said. “That’s easy to say and hard to do, given that we’re not even keeping up with our investment in transportation for the normal weekday commute.”
The key to emptying a city safely is starting early -- three or four days in a populous area. But in a changing situation -- a storm altering its course, for instance -- officials are left to weigh residents’ safety against the cost of crying wolf.
“Just deciding when to issue the evacuation order is incredibly difficult,” Mierzejewski said. “There is enormous cost association with a so-called false positive.”
Florida, he said, tends to land on safety’s side because hurricane-weary residents would rather not be sorry.
The rest of America may have to learn to accept inconvenience in the name of security, experts say, likening disaster preparation to an airport security check: Nobody likes it, but few complain if it keeps them safe.