Emergency Transportation Operations

Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments

Detroit, Michigan

#27-Most Congested
#11-Population (4,425,000)
INRIX® National Traffic Scorecard 2009

map of Detroit, Michigan

The Plan

Planners in the Detroit metropolitan region believe that since the area is not subject to the type of emergencies and disasters that affect other parts of the country the potential for mass evacuations is low. As a result, they do not dedicate many county or local resources to plan and prepare for a mass evacuation. For this reason, Detroit lacks a mass evacuation plan.

Nevertheless, city of Detroit officials reported that a few years ago they developed internal, baseline evacuation plans within each city police district. In downtown Detroit, an area called Eastern Market, sits near multiple expressways. Officials, concerned about a tornado scenario given only 20 minutes notification, started to develop a program to address evacuations in this area. Another scenario involved mass evacuations for a planned special event, particularly the 4th of July fireworks in downtown Detroit that typically includes up to 1 million people concentrated along the river. In that plan, Detroit officials plan for contraflow operations, basically turning every route outbound. Detroit officials noted that historically most evacuations are localized, not "mass"—or larger scale—evacuations. Detroit officials conceded that they must consolidate all of the District-based plans into one plan to assess the plan from a strategic perspective.

Michigan uses three plans as the basis for organizing and conducting mass evacuations. These include the:

  • Emergency Highway Traffic Regulation (EHTR) plan, which also addresses disaster recovery and moving responders into an area while evacuating large populations and is updated every 1 to 3 years and coordinated with various State and Federal governmental agencies. It currently is being updated.
  • Michigan Department of Transportation's (MDOT's) Emergency Response Plan, updated every 3 to 6 months; and
  • State of Michigan Emergency Management Plan, updated every 5 years. Since Michigan last updated the Emergency Management Plan in 2005, it is due for a revision in 2010.

Michigan authorities established these plans to manage and control the use of highway systems in a post-nuclear attack or other severe situation. Although it is not called an evacuation plan by name, it provides a framework and the related authorities to move traffic in a severe situation. To prepare for various scenarios, MDOT stated that they have addressed traffic planning for special events, but not for natural disasters or catastrophic events that would cause mass evacuations. During the interview, officials indicated that the mobility issues addressed in consideration of planned events that occur in the downtown Detroit area may be applied to organizing and conducting a mass evacuation triggered by natural or man-made events.

Top Highway Impediments

Top Highway Impediments

  • Infrastructure Conditions Impede Responder Operations
  • Congestion
  • Bottlenecks on Freeways, including Narrow Freeway Lanes and Limited Shoulders

The interviewees reported the following most significant impediments along NHS routes that may impact effective large-scale, mass evacuations from the Detroit metropolitan area.

  1. Infrastructure Conditions Impede Responder Operations - Poor conditions of NHS roads would impede responder attempts to manage traffic incidents during an evacuation or reach motorists in distress. For example, the shoulder width and disrepair along many stretches wide would frustrate responder attempts to reach incidents or motorist efforts to pull disabled vehicles to the side of the road.
  2. Congestion - County respondents indicated that some of the areas within the Detroit CBD could become very congested because the potential evacuation routes constitute existing three-lane Interstates with narrow shoulders.
  3. Bottlenecks on Freeways, including Narrow Freeway Lanes and Shoulders - Freeways and Interstates would impede an evacuation in key congested areas such as I-75, I-94, I-96, I-275, and I-696 as travelers go west. The eastbound traffic will be limited due to the two existing vehicular border crossings including the approaches.

The MDOT reported that although contraflow operations are addressed at a very high level within the Emergency Response Plan, they have never been tested—nor is testing desired—because it would be extremely complicated and would apply only to the State highways.

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