Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments
Almost 5 years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita battered Louisiana and Texas, respectively, public officials remain focused on the Nation's ability to safely evacuate large numbers of people. As a part of the Fiscal Year 2010 Department of Transportation Appropriations Conference Report (Public Law 111-117), the U.S. Congress requested DOT, in cooperation with DHS, to:
The section titled "Regional Findings" addresses the first assessment and involves a broad view of what local authorities view as the greatest impediments on their NHS routes in supporting a mass-evacuation operation within their region. The portion titled "Options for Accelerating Projects to Increase Evacuation Capacity West of the National Capital Region" will address the second study outlined in 2010 Conference Report accompanying P.L. 111-117.
"Ensuring the success of mass evacuations—The conferees direct the Department of Transportation (DOT), in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to assess mass evacuation plans for the country's most -high-threat, high-density areas and identify and prioritize deficiencies on those routes that could impede evacuations. The conferees also direct DOT, in cooperation with DHS and the Office of the National Capital Region Coordination, to conduct an analysis of how national highway system projects under construction west of the National Capital Region (NCR) could increase the NCR's evacuation capacity and provide a detailed plan to accelerate such projects. DOT shall submit its report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations no later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act."
Departments of Transportation & Housing & Urban
Evacuation operations occur daily throughout the Nation. Local jurisdictions manage evacuations, involving a single building, a neighborhood or an entire city. As such, evacuation expertise—including evacuation routes and potential impediments—lies with local authorities. In a 2005 Nuclear Regulatory Commission report titled, "Identification & Analysis of Factors Affecting Emergency Evacuations," the Sandia National Laboratories studied events that triggered evacuations over a 13-year period. Researchers discredited the common belief that hurricanes constitute the primary trigger of evacuations. They found that wildfires constituted the number one trigger of evacuations and that an evacuation of 1,000 or more people occurs every 2 to 3 weeks in the United States. The FHWA publishes "Evacuations in the News" on its Emergency Transportation Operations Web site-http://opsdev.fhwa.dot.gov/eto_tim_pse. This data informally demonstrates the validity of the NRC report, which identifies the triggers of evacuations depicted in Figure 4-2.
The importance of this research as applied to this report is that many of the metropolitan areas included below often experience evacuations, generally on a localized, small scale. Those jurisdictions not threatened by storms or hurricanes that may be provided with advance warning often stated that contraflow operations—a key tool to evacuate populations along the East Coast and Gulf States—would not work in their area. They commented that the proclivity of incidents common to their area do not offer an advance warning. As such, readers should keep in mind that potential evacuation-level events will vary depending upon the jurisdiction. For example, while hurricanes and tropical storms may plague Louisiana and Florida, wildfires, flash flooding, or hazardous materials incidents may be the primary evacuation trigger in places like Denver, Chicago, or the Northeast.
This study complements assessments published in June 2006. Immediately following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the U.S. Congress requested that DOT team with DHS in conducting two complementary studies of the efficacy of existing mass evacuation plans for Gulf Region States and emergency plans for local jurisdictions at risk from major hurricanes and other catastrophic events. In Section 10204 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) (P.L. 109-59) and Section 187 of the FY 2006 Department of Transportation Appropriations Act (P.L. 109-115), Congress specified that this assessment should include:
Congress directed that the Gulf State Evacuation Plan study also include the unique issues that arose during the evacuations in connection with hurricanes Katrina and Rita along with lessons learned in evacuations associated with other major catastrophic events.
Concurrent with the study of mass evacuation plans for the Gulf Coast Region, DOT collaborated with DHS on a study of catastrophic planning in States, territories, and major urban areas called for in the Conference Report (H.R.109-241) to the Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 2006 Appropriations Act (P.L. 109-90). Congress requested that DHS assess the status of catastrophic planning in all States and in 75 of the Nation's largest urban areas. This report, titled National Plan Review II, included a section assessing whether plans addressed three mass evacuation criteria.
This study differs from the 2006 reports. Congress asked that DOT and DHS focus on identifying and prioritizing deficiencies within the NHS that would impede effective mass evacuation operations. Where the Catastrophic Hurricane Evacuation Plan Evaluation3 and the National Plan Review4 evaluated the strategic elements of the plans, this assessment focuses on a singular tactical component—the road systems—as a part of effective evacuation plans. Therefore, readers should not construe large-scale, mass evacuations via the National Highway System as the only means by which localities respond to incidents. Nevertheless, many lessons learned from the 2006 studies are useful in establishing a frame of reference for this report.
For this study, the DOT used a structured methodology to collect, review and assess information on mass evacuations in high-risk, high-population locations around the country. Based on the conference report language, FHWA used the following definitions in preparing the report:
Regions Included in the Study
Because the DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) requires that 75 UASI areas develop an evacuation plan, FHWA elected to select the areas for this study from the UASI locations. Time constraints prohibited an assessment of all 75 UASI areas. As a result, FHWA narrowed the list of candidate regions to include in the study. Researchers used the following criteria to identify jurisdictions. The target areas had to be:
Next, FHWA gathered stakeholders to discuss the requirements. The group included representatives of the DOT Office of the Secretary; the FHWA offices of Operations, Infrastructure, Policy, and Planning; the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Office of National Capital Region Coordination (NCRC) and Office of Response.
The FHWA collected plans from selected metropolitan areas and assembled a research team. After reviewing the plans and discussing the planned methodology with the DOT and DHS stakeholders, FHWA decided to supplement the plan review with interviews of the local planners since local jurisdictions possess the most relevant information on the highway impediments that would frustrate mass evacuation operations. The FHWA interviewed local jurisdiction points of contacts and included State DOTs and the FHWA Division Offices in the interviews. The results of these interviews constitute the primary source of the information that follows. Therefore, this report reflects the perceptions of interviewees as to the impediments they might face in an evacuation and should in no way be misinterpreted as a scientific analysis of data validating impediments likely to occur.
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United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration