Emergency Transportation Operations

Highway Evacuations in Selected Metropolitan Areas: Assessment of Impediments

Introduction

a freeway at night

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:

  • assess mass evacuation plans for the country's high-threat, high-density areas and identify and prioritize deficiencies on those routes that could impede evacuations, and
  • 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.

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
Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act,
2010 Conference Report (111-366) to
Accompany HR 3288 & Public Law 111-117,
FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act

Background

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.

Figure 4-2. Principal Causes of Large-Scale Evacuation in the United Sates 1/1/1990-6/30/2003 - Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "Identification & Analysis of Factors Affecting Emergency Evacuations," 2004: Railroad Accident 11%, Transportation Accident 7%, Pipeline Rupture 3%, Fixed Site HazMat Incident 14%, Malevolent Acts 6%, Other 2%, Earthquakes 1%, Tornadoes 1%, Floods 20%, Hurricanes 10%, Tropical Storm 2%, and Wildfire 23%
Figure 4-2. Principal Causes of Large-Scale Evacuation in the United Sates 1/1/1990-6/30/2003
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) "Identification & Analysis of Factors Affecting Emergency Evacuations," 2004

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.

Cover of Catastrophic Hurricane Evacuation Plan Evaluation: A Report to Congress, June 1, 2006

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:

  1. all safe and practical modes of transportation available for evacuations;
  2. the extent to which evacuation plans are coordinated with neighboring States and adjoining jurisdictions;
  3. methods of communicating evacuation plans and preparing citizens in advance of evacuations;
  4. methods of coordinating communication with evacuees during plan execution;
  5. the availability of food, water, restrooms, fueling stations, and shelter opportunities along the evacuation routes;
  6. the time required to evacuate under the plan;
  7. the physical and mental strains associated with the evacuation; and
  8. the costs of the plans.

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.

Cover of Nationwide Plan Review: Phase 2 Report, June 16, 2006

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.

Methodology

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:

  • "…identify and prioritize current deficiencies on the recommended evacuation routes that could impede evacuations if not addressed" — Deficiencies were interpreted as any highway infrastructure, operations and ITS impediments perceived by local jurisdictions as a likely impediment to evacuation traffic flow.
  • "To assess the mass evacuation plans for the country's most high-threat, high-density areas…" — The country's most high-threat locations include areas at risk from all hazards, whether natural or man-made, and will be included among the DHS Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) regions.
  • "…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 currently 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…." — This portion of the requirement will be covered in a separate section within this report, titled "Options for Accelerating Projects to Increase Evacuation Capacity West of the National Capital Region." This section differs from the "Regional Findings" section that precedes it due to the specific geographic requirements and the need to address how accelerating projects currently under construction might address impediments in those specific geographies.
  • "…to conduct an analysis of how national highway system…" — Although mentioned in reference to the second study on deficiencies and suggested improvements west of the NCR, the researchers determined that the focus of this study would also be restricted to a review of highways, not arterial routes. This study does not address transit issues; therefore, the deficiencies refer only to the use of highways to evacuate populations, not the interrelated transit and highway systems often used in major metropolitan areas during evacuations. Again, readers should understand that the road system is only one aspect of an overall approach localities would implement to protect residents in the event of an incident.

Regions Included in the Study

Atlanta
Baltimore
Boston
Charleston
Chicago
Dallas/Ft. Worth
Denver
Detroit
Hampton Roads, VA
Houston
Jacksonville
Las Vegas
Los Angeles
Miami, FL

Minneapolis-St. Paul
National Capital Region
(DC, MD & northern VA)
New Orleans
New York City
Philadelphia
Phoenix
Portland, OR
San Diego, CA
San Francisco
Seattle
St. Louis, MO
Tampa-St. Petersburg

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:

  • subject to a range of threats that would trigger mass evacuations that include, but are not limited to, hurricanes/tropical storms, wildfires, floods, hazardous materials accidents and releases, and terrorist threats;
  • among the top 100 most populated areas based on the U.S. Census (2000);
  • geographically dispersed so that all regions of the Nation were represented in the study; and
  • actively involved in emergency planning, increasing the likelihood that such that plans would be available for review.

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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