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3  Interviews with Practitioners

Interviews were conducted by telephone with practitioners to obtain information from the perspective of representatives of transportation, emergency response, and emergency planning agencies. Contacts included agency officials who had operational experience with an emergency evacuation in an urban area or had engaged in planning for urban evacuation where pedestrians were considered.

3.1    Selection of Evacuation Events

The most relevant information on pedestrian evacuation identified in the literature review came from the transportation case studies (see Section 2.4). From these studies, it is reasonable to expect that emergency evacuations involving large numbers of people on foot might be necessary in urban areas with a relatively high use of mass transit for commuting to work. The extensive blackout of the Northeast in 2003 and the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 stand out as notable events where appreciable numbers of people evacuated part of a large city without using a private vehicle.

Very little information was found using key word searches and online data bases for reports on evacuations. The searches covered newspaper articles, the National Transportation Safety Board accident investigations, and federal disaster declarations. The results were mainly examples of evacuations associated with transport-related hazardous material spills and toxic releases in rural or small community and industrial settings, and evacuations prompted by hurricane warnings and flooding disasters.

The search for practitioner thinking on pedestrian evacuation was broadened to include evacuation planning. In recent years, the emergency preparedness community has moved away from plans for specific events, to an “all-hazards” philosophy. This approach is grounded in the observation that a basic concept of operations serves to guide response to terrorism attacks as well as emergencies related to natural events and technological breakdowns, with a few adaptations made depending on the nature of the event. The 9/11 attacks provided many important lessons to transportation officials and emergency planners because of the self-evacuations that occurred. Images in the media showing outbound pedestrians crowding the bridges in New York City may have prompted emergency planners in other cities to consider pedestrians as part of the evacuation mix. This expanded search yielded a few examples of emergency evacuation planning.

Fifteen representatives of transportation, emergency response, and emergency planning agencies agreed to participate in an interview about a relevant emergency event or planning activity. These interviews were conducted over the phone by the principal investigator. The notes from the telephone interviews were reviewed by the respondents and corrected as necessary. The urban area and the related emergency or planning activities are listed below.

Table 1.  Evacuation Situations Selected for Interviews with Practitioners


Characteristic of Emergency Evacuation

Washington, D.C., metropolitan area


Example of: Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C.

On the morning of 9/11, 2001, a large number of people spontaneously left their downtown Washington, D.C., offices or reversed their morning commute upon news of the attacks in New York City and then at the Pentagon.  Unanticipated by authorities, this voluntary evacuation was characterized by initial gridlocked traffic and large surges of pedestrians on sidewalks and at mass transit stations for outbound routes.  With no direct impact in the District, there was no surge of inbound emergency vehicles. Accounts indicate that many people walked relatively long distances, most assumed to be headed for their residences in the suburbs.

Cleveland, Ohio


Example of: Sept. 11, 2001 evacuation of tall buildings which led to large scale evacuation from the downtown area.

On the morning of 9/11, 2001, city officials requested evacuation of the taller buildings in downtown Cleveland, based on information about the projected flight path of one of the hijacked airliners.  This evacuation activity along with the news of the attack on the World Trade Center resulted in a spontaneous evacuation by large numbers of others in the downtown.  Most people retrieved their cars and drove out of the downtown area, in a slow but orderly traffic flow facilitated by law enforcement, with transit riders waiting for buses and trains.  With no actual impact, there was no surge of inbound emergency vehicles. Following 9/11, a downtown evacuation plan, assuming both vehicle and pedestrian emergency evacuation was developed and publicized.

San Francisco Bay Area


Example of: Transportation system disruptions from the 1989 earthquake in the Bay Area.  A large and unpredictable fire storm in a residential area in the foothills in 1991 that necessitated sudden evacuations of residents along narrow roads.

San Francisco is an example of a major city with many people using mass transit to jobs downtown and major traffic choke points (bridges) for traffic into and out of the city in two directions.  The 1989 earthquake demonstrated that damaged bridges and elevated freeways can limit mobility and force people out of their cars. The 1991 wildfire resulted in the evacuation of about 10,000 residents from a foothills residential area, many having to abandon their cars due to the narrow, often blocked roads in the area.

New York City


Example of: A city with a very high percentage of the downtown workforce commuting by mass transit, and emergency events in 2001 (9/11 attack)  and 2003 (Northeast blackout) that prompted the sudden departure of workers and others from the business district of Manhattan, in private cars, mass transit, and including tens of thousands of them going on foot for several miles in order to reach homes in other boroughs.

On the morning of 9/11, evacuation of one and then the second of the World Trade Center towers were ordered because of being hit by the hijacked airliners.  Many building evacuees and others began to leave the area in cars or on foot. A larger scale evacuation began when the towers collapsed. Large numbers of people left Lower Manhattan on foot, along with vehicle traffic. Bridges and tunnels had to be controlled in order to accommodate the outbound vehicles and pedestrians and inbound emergency vehicles. Ferries and other types of boats were put into service for pedestrians leaving Lower Manhattan. Rail and bus transit functioned beyond the area of the World Trade Center complex.  Accounts indicate that many people walked relatively long distances most likely to get to their residences in other boroughs of the city.  (More than 50% of downtown workers typically use mass transit to get to work.)

In August, 2003, an extensive power outage in the Northeast resulted in workers leaving the office buildings in Manhattan mid-afternoon. Vehicle traffic quickly gridlocked with no traffic control lights and electric-powered mass transit was inoperable. Large numbers of people walked to their residences in other boroughs. Bridges and tunnels were designated to accommodate both vehicle and pedestrian streams; there was no surge of inbound emergency vehicles.

Seattle, WA


Example of:  The use of a “dirty bomb” scenario for a TOPOFF exercise that would call for the downtown population to shelter-in-place and only evacuate when buses were provided to move that portion of the population likely to be in the radiological plume path to a safer part of the city.

In 2003, Seattle exercised portions of local and state emergency response systems with the scenario of a “dirty bomb” (conventional explosives used to disperse radioactive material) detonated in an area between Interstate-5 through the heart of downtown Seattle and the waterfront.  The evacuation plan (simulated) was based on the strategic objective of minimizing the amount of downtown population movement because of the danger and uncertainty of a radiological plume. Vehicle traffic was prohibited.  The Ferry Terminal was simulated to be in the path of the plume. The downtown population would be instructed to shelter in place with the exception of those instructed to board buses deployed to move people from the projected path of the plume.  Total compliance was assumed for purposes of the exercise.

Although New York City officials have the most relevant experience with pedestrian evacuation, most agency representatives that were contacted declined the invitation to participate because of the high demand for interviews that they have experienced since 9/11. Consequently, some information from other anecdotal and published sources has been included in order to present observations about the evacuations in New York City.

3.2    Findings from Interviews with Practitioners

3.2.1   Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Region

The greater metropolitan region of Washington, D.C., includes the District and parts of the adjacent states of Maryland and Virginia. Although the Pentagon suffered the direct impact of the 9/11 attacks, a much more general evacuation was experienced in the District. Some information is presented here related to the evacuation of the Pentagon, but the interviews with the practitioners focused more on what happened in the District that same day. No interviews were attempted with Pentagon officials or Arlington, VA emergency response agencies.

The crash of the hijacked commercial airliner into the Pentagon on 9/11 represents a “no-notice” event in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region. By the time this event took place, the major commuter routes in the vicinity of the Pentagon were filled with traffic that was barely moving. This traffic was caused by people who began to leave the District upon hearing about the attacks on the World Trade Center. These traffic conditions did delay some emergency units that deployed to the Pentagon, but no mention has been found that pedestrian traffic interfered with emergency responders.

Many people commute by Metrorail and bus to the Pentagon, which is served by a station under the facility. Metrorail services were programmed to by-pass this station after the Pentagon was hit, but commuter rail and bus services were still available at the next station on the line, which can be reached by a pedestrian underpass. Pentagon evacuees without cars who took this route to find transportation would have avoided the congested roadways. This is an example of how urban planning and design for pedestrian safety and convenience under normal conditions can be of particular benefit to pedestrians in emergency evacuations.

Telephone interviews were conducted with transportation and transit agency representatives for the Washington, D.C., area, and information was obtained during the subsequent project-related workshop. The interviews provided observations related to the sort of spontaneous evacuation that began in the District as people began hearing the news of an airliner hitting a World Trade Center tower. When the second tower was hit in the same way, the evidence that this was an attack and not an accident quickly changed the interpretation of the situation for federal agencies and workers.

The typical high-volume traffic and transit period of the morning commute was nearly over when the traffic began to reverse direction as people in the District began to leave. It became even more pronounced once the Pentagon was hit. The sidewalks and congested streets in some areas filled with people leaving office buildings in large numbers. The assumption is that most people left for home. At around 10:30 a.m., the Office of Personnel Management notified federal government workers that they could leave work, which further increased the outbound traffic.

No report was found that any kind of a formal recommendation was made by authorities for people to leave the District, but many other pre-planned security arrangements were implemented. Evidence for this is the sudden appearance of physical security perimeters around high-probability target areas like the White House and Capitol area, which forced pedestrians and vehicle traffic to take detours from their usual routes. At least one report states that a recommendation was made to the transit authority that Metrorail services be suspended, but transit officials declined to do so based on their assessment of the nature of the threat and the importance of transit services for people leaving the District. Some route changes were made, including by-passing the stations at the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport. In-bound traffic was deflected in several places. Since no impact area was located in the District itself, there was no major convergence of emergency response personnel to any specific location in the District.


Selected points important for practitioners:  The evacuation was spontaneous rather than recommended, causing the traffic control measures to prevent gridlocked traffic to lag behind the initial stages of the evacuation.  The large numbers of people leaving office buildings at approximately the same time created even larger crowds on the sidewalks and around mass transit loading areas than does an end-of-day commute. The sudden deployment of security barriers around government facilities created unfamiliar detours for both drivers and pedestrians.  Since 9/11, traffic cameras have become more common along major routes, and can be of considerable value in the event of a future evacuation. The transportation agency also intends to continue to deploy “spotters” to watch the evacuation traffic at key points in order to be able to resolve traffic conflicts or delays before they worsen.  It is critical for transportation agencies to work closely with the mass media to ensure that no misinformation gets reported about the status of the mass transit system since it can be an important mode for use by evacuees, rail service in particular because it is not affected by traffic congestion.


The summary observations given below provide a few different perspectives, but do not cover all the agencies that were directly involved.

Challenges Described from the Perspective of Traffic Management

Challenges Described from the Perspective of the Transit Police

Responses or Adjustments Implemented

Potential Adjustments Not Yet Implemented

3.2.2   Cleveland, Ohio

An internet search on the topic of pedestrian evacuation identified an evacuation plan for the City of Cleveland that addressed both pedestrian and vehicle evacuation. According to representatives of the Emergency Preparedness Office, this plan had been prepared following the events of September 11, 2001. On that day, as information about the hijackings emerged and it appeared that perhaps one of the planes was headed in the general direction of the city, the mayor ordered the evacuation of the few (six to nine) high-rise office buildings in the downtown area. This evacuation prompted a general, self-initiated, and essentially full-scale evacuation of downtown Cleveland, resulting in considerable traffic congestion. Although additional police officers were dispatched to manage the traffic, it took about ninety minutes for the traffic to clear out of the downtown. The Mayor requested the development of an evacuation plan that could be put into effect to ensure a much more rapid and efficient evacuation of the downtown area, should it become necessary in the future.

Cleveland also was affected by the prolonged Northeast Blackout in August 2003. A high level of traffic congestion ensued when the power outage prompted people to leave offices and stores for home. This was viewed and handled as a heavy outbound commute and not as an evacuation, since there was no urgency to clear the downtown. With the light rail out of service because of the loss of power, the transit authority implemented a contingency plan for replacing the light rail service with surface buses to accommodate those commuters. The interviews highlighted the difference in the concept of operation for an evacuation as detailed in the evacuation plan for the downtown compared to a commuter surge or sports event traffic.

Interviews were conducted with representatives of Cleveland’s Emergency Preparedness Office in the Division of Fire, the Division of Police, and the Regional Transit Authority.


Selected points important to practitioners:  The evacuation of just a few downtown buildings in the face of a general threat (as happened in Cleveland on 9/11) is likely to prompt evacuation of the entire downtown area so it is important for responders to be prepared to manage it.  When the development of a downtown evacuation plan was undertaken shortly after 9/11, the mayor involved the downtown building owners and managers groups as well as public safety and other government agencies.  This helps to spread the education efforts among many participants about the evacuation plan.  When Cleveland was affected by the northeast blackout of 2003, emergency managers recognized the exodus from downtown as an early commute rather than an evacuation and did not try to invoke the downtown evacuation plan because of its basically different underlying strategy for clearing people from downtown. The normal contingency plans that the transit authority has for quickly creating “bus bridges” if some portion of the rail system becomes inoperable are easy to activate should they be needed to effect some part of a city evacuation.


Challenges Presented by the Events on 9/11

Responses and Adjustments Made

Challenges Presented by the Blackout in 2003

3.2.3   The San Francisco Bay Area

Interviews were conducted with responder agency officials who had direct experience with two major disasters in the Bay Area—the collapse of a portion of a double-deck highway in Oakland during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, and the sudden evacuation prompted by the unpredictable behavior of the Oakland/Berkeley Hills Wildfire (also called the Tunnel Fire) in 1991. An interview also was conducted with a representative of the Metropolitan Transportation Council (MTC), the agency that serves as the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Bay Area. This organization has been active in efforts to develop an integrated response among the transportation agencies and in conducting drills and annual exercises to test these plans.


Selected points important for practitioners:  Experience with portions of highways being suddenly closed due to earthquake damage has made local authorities aware of the situation of drivers suddenly finding themselves in areas they are totally unfamiliar with and in need of staging areas, service, and information.  Media convergence on areas with dramatic damage can create a bigger problem for emergency responders than do pedestrian evacuees who are more likely to stay out of the way. Because earthquakes often cause damage to some parts of the transportation infrastructure, the transportation agency is like to be focused on addressing these problems and not available for assistance with evacuation streams in other locations. The Oakland Hills fire demonstrated that people accustomed to driving out of their neighborhoods may not think to evacuate on foot along footpaths even when that it is evident that driving out will take too long. One law enforcement officer interviewed stated his belief that pedestrians will know what to do and will not need a lot of direct instruction from officials, who can focus on other things.


Challenges Posed by the Collapse of the Cypress
Elevated Highway in the Earthquake, 1989

Challenges Posed by the Earthquake Damage to theBay Bridge, 1989

Challenges Posed by the Oakland/Berkeley Hills Fire, 1991

Adjustments Implemented

Adjustments Planned for Future Implementatio

3.2.4   New York City Region

The events of September 11, 2001, when terrorist-controlled airliners were flown into the World Trade Center towers in a major business district of a large metropolitan area, present perhaps the most basic scenario for conditions likely to result in a large-scale pedestrian evacuation. Although city officials declined to provide interviews for the research, a general description can be pieced together with information from news accounts, news photos, and various research reports. This decidedly threatening event occurred with no warning. It also occurred in two stages—the impact of the planes on each of the towers, and then the collapse of each tower. People who evacuated from each tower after it was hit apparently arrived at the street in a fairly steady stream, most not even aware of exactly what had happened to the building. Some needed medical attention; others apparently dispersed in various directions on foot or initially lingered in the general vicinity as observers. Initially, no other buildings were evacuated.

On a typical work day a large proportion of the worker population present in lower Manhattan that morning will have arrived there by mass transit rather than by private vehicle. Soon after the initial attack, the subway was shut down and passengers were evacuated from it. All traffic inbound to Manhattan was prohibited, with the exception of emergency response vehicles. The compactness of the Borough of Manhattan, joined to the more residential boroughs by bridges, tunnels, and ferries, made feasible a decision to head out on foot for other parts of the city. Buses had continued to run and by afternoon subway operations were re-established in areas other than Lower Manhattan. Given that Manhattan is an island, all routes for leaving the island represented major choke points for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

Street access to the immediate area around the WTC had quickly been closed off by law enforcement for all but emergency response vehicles. One report stated that the evacuees from the towers and other observers who lingered around the scene early on stayed out of the way of the emergency responders. The initial exodus from the area of the two WTC towers was characterized by people emerging from the buildings in a continuous stream after an arduous building evacuation experience, walking away from the area, and then running for safety as the first tower unexpectedly collapsed. Within the cordoned-off area the pedestrians spread out across the sidewalks and street in an apparent effort to accommodate individual walking rates. The pressure wave from the collapse knocked pedestrians to the ground, and the dust cloud made it too dark to see for some period of time. Many crouched along buildings or cars, or were pulled inside buildings by other people. After the dust clouds cleared people continued their efforts to get home.

Once these pedestrians proceeded some distance from the impact site, they settled into streams of pedestrians heading toward their destinations of choice. For the most part, these were people who had left their place of work and were headed for home. This situation is essentially the reverse of what happens during hurricane evacuations, where entire families are leaving their homes, headed for some safer place to stay temporarily until the storm is over. Accounts indicate that some degree of official management may have been used to contain these streams so that usually at least one lane was available for emergency vehicles, both on the surface streets and the bridges. As pedestrians reached areas farther north of Canal Street, they encountered the normal mix of activities of people in areas that were not directly affected by the damage. Evacuees, themselves covered with dust from the collapse of the towers, remarked on how strange it was to find other parts of the city going about normal activities.

At about 11:00 a.m., after the collapse of both towers, the Mayor urged that everyone who was still south of Canal Street should evacuate that area. Evacuation in this instance was viewed as a general protective action, given the uncertainty about conditions associated with the destroyed towers. This secondary evacuation involved a heavy stream of private cars; the traffic flowed smoothly and as directed by law enforcement, who had received prior notice that it was to occur.

A no-notice emergency urban evacuation on the scale of that associated with the attack on the WTC towers was an unprecedented event in the United States. Interest in all aspects of the event was intense on the part of the media, criminal investigators, forensic engineers, building evacuation experts, behavioral researchers, and any number of other types of experts. In August 2003, the Northeast Blackout in August prompted another evacuation from the office buildings in Manhattan to other parts of the city by people on foot. Many also had to be evacuated from the stalled subway system. Increased bus and ferry service was fairly quickly implemented to accommodate the demand. Many people chose to walk, and bridge routes were provided for those headed to the east. Lessons from 9/11 led to the implementation of measures to separate pedestrians and vehicles by assigning them to different bridges and tunnels.


Selected points important for practitioners:  The large number of people who left the downtown area on foot in the face of the attack on and collapse of the World Trade Towers on 9/11 may be a reflection of the fairly large percentage of people who use mass transit to get to work in the business district so are car-less when downtown. The importance of maintaining mass transit as much as possible, and devising means for providing information to people wanting to use mass transit for evacuation, is critical in this situation. The fact that so many of the people who evacuated on foot walked much further than was necessary to be out of any danger, suggests that when people evacuate from their offices they are most likely to be determined to get home so response organizations need to prepare to accommodate this behavior and make it safer and easier.  Many ad hoc arrangements were made to accommodate evacuees such as other boats engaging in ferrying people off Manhattan Island, and law enforcement requesting drivers to take as passengers evacuees who might otherwise try to walk across a bridge or through a tunnel to leave Manhattan. Much of what initially looked like pedestrian evacuation was like to be more multi-modal in that many people walked to where they could get mass transit and completed part of their journey in that manner.


Challenge to the Transit System

One interview was conducted with a representative of a transit agency. This interview served to provide further evidence about pedestrian evacuation as a multi-modal alternative, unless the distance people need to move to be safe is short and the time they need to remain there is brief. Urban transit systems, especially rail systems, can provide alternative evacuation routes to avoid traffic gridlock and endangering pedestrians. However, urban transit systems must address certain challenges.

Responses and Adjustments Made

As was indicated in the earlier literature review, several observations about adjustments made to accommodate the unusually large numbers of pedestrians were gathered during the interviews for the FHWA-sponsored case study of the transportation challenges and responses in conjunction with the WTC attack on 9/11. A major concern of the transportation officials was that the congestion on the bridges associated with having large numbers of pedestrians on the bridges as well as cars might hinder incoming emergency vehicles. Recommendations were developed for ways to keep pedestrians and vehicles separated, such as assigning certain roads and bridges only to vehicles and others to pedestrians, or gathering pedestrians in staging areas where they would be provided bus transportation for crossing the bridges.

Anecdotal Information from First Hand Evacuation Observations

The evacuation situation on September 11, 2001 can be pieced together relatively well from news stories and photographs. Personal web logs on the internet provide another interesting, albeit anecdotal, source of information on the situation encountered by people walking out of the WTC area, their protective actions, and their strategies for getting home. Some insights into the options people had and used can be gleaned from these first hand observations.

3.2.5   Seattle, Washington

In 2003, Seattle was one of the locations for the TOPOFF-2 exercise. The scenario for Seattle included a dirty bomb explosion in the downtown area. An interview was conducted with a representative of Seattle Emergency Services to determine what sort of protective action was included in the exercise scenario for an event that involved a radioactive plume associated with the destructive explosion of a “dirty bomb.”

Challenges Described

Adjustments Assumed in the Simulation

Adjustments Planned for Future Implementation

3.2.6   Observations from a Regional Planner


Selected points important for practitioners:  It is important for planners and community officials to keep separate the concepts of temporary emergency evacuation as a protective action and the older civil defense concept of re-settlement of populations away from what are considered particularly vulnerable locations.  It is critical for adjacent jurisdictions to engage in integrated planning for many aspects of evacuation including seamless transit service and sharing of information about evacuation routes because evacuees in metropolitan areas are likely to cross one or more jurisdictions.


One respondent, affiliated with a regional planning organization, requested that remarks made during the interview be anonymous. The planner talked broadly about evacuation in general. He made the important point that plans for evacuations where evacuees will be crossing from one jurisdiction to another will have to address many important issues. These need to be worked out in advance. His observations were borne out in at least one incident from the Hurricane Katrina evacuations in 2005 when a group of evacuees were stopped from crossing the boundary into a particular jurisdiction by law enforcement authorities, apparently at the request of elected officials. The planner’s observations included the following points:


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