Using Highways During Evacuation Operations for Events with Advance Notice

Routes to Effective Evacuation Planning Primer Series

Produced in collaboration with the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO)

Tier II Operations: Evacuee Re-entry

Local jurisdictions must support the re-entry of evacuees. Many of the same agencies may be involved in the Tier II Operation, retaining many of the same roles and responsibilities as they had for the evacuation. In addition, personnel, supplies, and equipment similar to that used for the evacuation may be needed for the re-entry.

During this phase, the environment is much less certain, safe, or secure. Decisions on when to permit re-entry may affect the health and welfare of the returnees, may be critically watched by the media, may require the same type of personal support (transportation, food, shelter) as the evacuees found at or en route to the shelters, and may have great political and economic ramifications if not done properly. Re-entry may take a matter of hours for events that occurred and did not cause major damage to physical property and the infrastructure. However, return operations following a catastrophic incident may take days, weeks, and even months.

The transportation sector plays a role in supporting the return of evacuees. It can contribute to making the roadways safe for return travel by aiding in damage assessments of the roads, clearing debris, and reestablishing services. It is useful to maintain a database of critical transportation assets to aid in damage assessments and recovery. Due to the importance of restoring the highway system immediately following an event, emergency managers should place a priority on activities and securing critical assets to conduct damage assessment, debris removal, hazardous materials disposal, repair of the roads, and restoration of transportation facilities to enable them to receive evacuees when it is safe to do so. Planners should use performance metrics for these activities to ensure the highway reopens quickly. For example, one such metric could be that all roads, except those with severe damage, reopen within 24 hours of the event. Transportation personnel at public works agencies can also assist with debris removal. To quickly reopen roads, transportation agencies should consider “cut and toss” contracts. Such a contract allows trees and other debris to be cut and pushed off the roadway to quickly and safely reopen the road, with the complete removal of the debris occurring later when time is less critical.

In the best-case scenario, the projected event will not have caused major damage to the local community, so after a damage assessment has been made and the all-clear has been given by public safety officials, a message may be sent via the media that it is safe to return. Those who self-evacuated using their personal vehicles should be able to return on their own. If the jurisdiction organized movement for transit-dependent or special needs populations, the jurisdiction may have to organize a return trip for those evacuees.

Transportation agencies that provide data to support the operations and information to the public from local TMCs, also may be providing personnel and equipment such as barricades and signs, and may provide the use of their motorist assistance teams to support the re-entry. Close coordination between transportation and law enforcement is a must for a successful re-entry.

Determining When to Permit Re-entry

The decision to re-enter an area that has been evacuated is based on public safety factors. Decision makers must be assured that the impacted area is safe for the return of residents and business owners. That requires government agencies to inspect the area and aid any victims who did not evacuate, perform an initial assessment of damage to homes and businesses, move debris to open roadways, handle downed power lines, and other such actions to ensure public safety.

Some of these factors are particularly critical for special needs evacuees who may need power to run medical equipment or the elderly who need air conditioning to avoid heat-related medical problems. There may be other health concerns, particularly if the evacuation was due to a hazardous materials release or if there is standing water that may breed insects that could pose a threat.

It is likely that the level of damage will vary within the affected area. That means the re-entry process may happen in phases, as each geographic area is deemed safe for evacuees’ return. For example, after Hurricane Rita in 2005, Texas implemented a phased re-entry plan. They determined which geographic areas were safe for return and set a timetable during which each area could be re-entered. The re-entry phases were well reported by the media. This phased approach worked well in avoiding the major traffic jams that occurred during the evacuation for the same hurricane.

Part of any re-entry plan must address those people who were unable to evacuate themselves. There must be a clear strategy on how, when, and to where these evacuees should be transported and how they may reach their final destination. Such a plan may need to include notice to family members or other caregivers to ensure that evacuees are cared for upon their return. Transporting the evacuees back to their original locations may require buses and other motor vehicles, and some may require air travel due to medical needs.

Once developed, the plan must be communicated to evacuees. Methods and tools to communicate with evacuees are discussed in the ”Tools for Effective Highway Evacuation Operations” section of this primer.

Communicating Re-entry to Evacuees

Before implementing the re-entry plan, government agencies must know how they can communicate with evacuees, who may be scattered among shelters, families’ homes, and other areas outside of the immediate jurisdiction. The communication with evacuees should describe how the re-entry should work. The adjacent text box describes some of the types of information to communicate to the pubic to support re-entry.

Those evacuees who are returning must know what to expect upon their return. Information must include the routes to use, the utilities expected to be functional, and the services likely to be available. This is especially important for the special needs population who may require additional basic services prior to re-entry to the affected area. Because many evacuees may be located well outside the immediate impacted area, an extensive public and media outreach campaign should be in place well in advance of the start of re-entry to allow evacuees to plan ahead for their return.

Executing Re-Entry Transportation of Evacuees to Origination Points

The considerations used in the evacuation are applicable in the re-entry phase. Once a decision is made on when and how to execute re-entry of evacuees, there must be a plan to return evacuees who did not self-evacuate to their origination points. In some cases, medical patients were evacuated by ambulance or air depending on their condition. Those patients will likely require the same means of transport to return to the medical facility from which they were evacuated. Likewise, people who were evacuated by bus or train will have to be returned to their origination point. However, if the rail lines are damaged or the transit system is not operating, other transportation resources may be needed to support their re-entry. In some cases, staging areas again may be used as an interim stop before transporting individuals back to their primary destination. Executing this plan may require both equipment and personnel for the transportation, staging of vehicles and evacuees, boarding of vehicles, provision of water, etc. The re-entry plan must be coordinated with transportation and public safety officials to ensure that they adequately staff highway routes. Likewise, traveler services, such as fuel, food, water and medical care, should be available along the highway routes as they were during the evacuation. Officials may use ITS equipment to support re-entry operations. VMS, HAR, and 511 systems can all provide valuable information to evacuees during re-entry. TMCs can help monitor the re-entry through cameras and traffic counters, identify areas where incident response may be required, and provide overall information about travel times for re-entry. Agencies may have pre-scripted messages that can easily be placed on VMS, both permanent and portable, as well as pre-scripted messages for the 511 system. Such pre-scripted messages save time and ensure consistent information is provided across geographic boundaries as evacuees travel back from far away locations. Also, some vehicle manufacturers provide on-board vehicle information systems so that information can be transmitted directly to an in-vehicle information screen. Some agencies may choose to explore a partnership with such companies to provide information directly to returning evacuees.

Communication among and between jurisdictions may also be needed. State DOTs, for example, can share information on traffic conditions and also post messages on ITS systems well beyond the re-entry area to assist evacuees. As noted previously, government agencies must have a solid communication plan to prepare and execute re-entry.