Emergency Transportation Operations

Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments

Chicago, Illinois

#3-Most Congested
#3-Population (9,570,000)
INRIX® National Traffic Scorecard 2009

map of Chicago, Illinois

The Plan

In Cook County, Illinois, (home to Chicago) during certain incidents, authorities may ask selected County residents to relocate for their safety. Illinois law delegates the responsibility for the protection of life and property, including evacuation decisions, to the affected jurisdictions' Mayor/ Village President and the County Board President of Cook County.

Interviewees report that the Illinois Emergency Operations Plan (IEOP) is the most current. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) Bureau of Disaster Assistance and Preparedness maintains and updates the IEOP. This document addresses evacuation as part of Emergency Support Function #1 (ESF #1), Transportation. The Illinois Department of Transportation - Highways (IDOT-H) serves as the primary State agency for ESF #1 under the plan, and collaborates with the Illinois Commerce Commission, Illinois Department of Central Management Services, Illinois Department of Corrections, Illinois Department of Human Services, Illinois Department of Military Affairs, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Department of Transportation - Division of Aeronautics, and the Illinois State Police. State officials are currently updating the 2-year-old IEOP after a recent annual review with the city of Chicago and to address after-action comments following the fall 2009 tabletop exercise. The update will be completed by the end of 2010 and will include new gated-ramp locations, improved exhibits for field personnel use, and better definition or correction of assumptions made in previous issues of the documents. The statewide plan incorporates the Chicago Central Business District (CBD) evacuation plan.

Each jurisdiction must develop a primary evacuation plan and transportation annex specific to community needs that will guide evacuation decisions and ensure a coordinated evacuation operation. The Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) coordinates the development of a county-wide evacuation plan, and the Cook County Sheriff's Police Department and suburban law enforcement conduct evacuation efforts, designate evacuation routes, provide traffic and movement control, and establish security in evacuation areas. Officials have identified basic primary, secondary, and tertiary relocation routes and described an implementation methodology in various Cook County emergency plans. A Regional Catastrophic Planning Team (RCPT) develops and maintains a multi-State, county, local jurisdiction evacuation plan7. The Sheriff's Police Department Command Center and the Cook County EOC house appropriate Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and maps displaying these pre-determined evacuation routes.

As a post 9-11 preparedness action, Illinois and Chicago considered plausible scenarios that would trigger a mass evacuation and identified vulnerabilities, hazards and risks to build into a plan. In Chicago's case, this would entail evacuating about 660,000 people from the Chicago CBD. The evacuation plan, shared with the Regional Transit Security Working Group (RTSWG), is reviewed annually and includes Pace Bus as a resource.

The city evacuation plan includes evacuation of the city of Chicago out to the far suburbs and beyond and procedures to notify suburban officials. The new draft addresses how the Chicago agencies will work together and recognizes the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) plan because exiting the Chicago CBD requires either personal transportation or CTA resources. The Chicago evacuation plan includes various evacuation components from CTA, Metra, and IDOT. While the plan generally addresses evacuation within Cook County, planners recognize that they would require resources from other metropolitan Chicago counties. The CTA plan goes no further than the outer limits of the CTA service area, but covers the northern and southern boundaries of Cook County, Lake Michigan on the east and State Route 83 on the west. As part of the DHS/FEMA RCPGP, planners will extend the scope of the evacuation plan to the 10 northeast Illinois counties, Kenosha County, Wisconsin, and five northeast Indiana counties.

Chicago currently benefits from a Homeland Security Grant to address evacuation planning as a part of catastrophic planning. The RCPGP provides catastrophic events planning grants to the 10 highest risk Urban Areas and surrounding regions, including: Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Boston, Honolulu, Norfolk, and Seattle.

Top Highway Impediments

Top Highway Impediments

  • Traffic Congestion
  • Emergency Vehicle Access
  • Railroad Crossing/Street Blockage
  • Contraflow Operations Would Impede Evacuations
  • Real-Time Highway Information for Responders & the Public

The interviewees reported the following impediments along NHS routes that may impact effective large-scale, mass evacuations from the Chicago metropolitan area. Respondents also stated that impediments on arterials and other endemic challenges will frustrate efforts to move citizens out of harm's way.

  1. Traffic Congestion - Traffic congestion in the CBD constitutes the most significant deficiency. There are various pinch points along many routes as they leave the city. In considering evacuating Chicago, IDOT considers the ½ million cars that transit into the CBD each morning and trying to get them out of the area, as well as those that will depend on transit to access their vehicles parked outside the CBD.
  2. Emergency Vehicle Access - The city needs clear routes reserved solely for movement of emergency vehicles into and out of the zone being evacuated.
  3. Railroad Crossings/Street Blockage - Traffic attempting to evacuate an area without sufficient traffic control can create blockages of at-grade rail crossings and arterials being utilized as evacuation routes.
  4. Contraflow Operations Would Impede Evacuations - After extensive review of contraflow operations as an option to conduct mass evacuations, it is the consensus of local metropolitan officials that using contraflow would be a deficiency impacting the overall goal of moving people out of the CBD in the case of a "no-notice" event that required mass-evacuation. The IDOT addresses contraflow operations as a tab in its evacuation plan. However, because respondents believe contraflow operations could not be implemented in an immediate emergency situation, Chicago planners have not fully developed these plans. Only one NHS route in the area has reversible lanes established to ease contraflow. However, after careful review, respondents concluded that contraflow planning and operations would not be effective and could serve to congest an entire roadway that could be used for emergency vehicles. Officials concluded that impediments would impact the time and cost for conducting evacuations. They noted that while contraflow may work well in hurricane scenarios where there is time to coordinate and execute such an operation, they doubt the effectiveness of contraflow for immediate-impact incidents or no-notice events. Chicago officials expressed a major concern about their ability to execute a contraflow operation along any of their highways in response to a "no-notice" catastrophic event. Officials indicate that such an operation would require a very complex command and control system that would involve representatives of all the jurisdictions along those evacuation routes. This would entail integrating regional plans, designation of Incident Commanders, development of Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) among all local governments, and coordination of communication (e.g., radio, data, GIS sharing) resources and activities among all involved agencies.
  5. Real-Time Highway Information for Responders and the Public - From an emergency management perspective, accurate and timely information and directions issued to the impacted populations on what actions to take is critical and must be provided through a Joint Information System (JIS), which will coordinate information among agencies across jurisdictional lines. Real-time situational awareness information on highway conditions, alternative routes, and evacuation instructions is critical to the evacuees and responders.


7 The RCPT includes the Cook County DHSEM, Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), other Metro County Emergency Management Agencies, and the IEMA..

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