|RETHINKING EVACUATION PLANS|
September 26, 2005
Major U.S. cities are taking a long look at their evacuation plans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed the difficulties of quickly getting hundreds of thousands of residents out of harm's way. Three officials from Washington, D.C., Seattle and Miami discuss their cities' evacuation plans and lessons learned from the past.
MARGARET WARNER: This was Interstate 45 in Houston last week. The main freeway heading north out of the city could very well have doubled as the world's largest parking lot.
WOMAN IN CAR: Nobody has gas. They're either closed or they're out of gas.
MARGARET WARNER: Gas stations ran dry in many places as Texans hit the road in record numbers, fleeing in advance of Hurricane Rita. Speeds on many clogged arteries were being clocked not in miles per hour, but hours per mile.
MAN IN CAR: I'm not going to even make it to the beltway by the time the hurricane hits. I'm going half a mile every couple of hours.
MARGARET WARNER: The evacuation of southeast Texas was the largest of its kind ever attempted in the US, as Texas Governor Rick Perry noted.
GOV. RICK PERRY: We moved upwards of 2.5 million, 2.7 million people in a, basically, a 24- to 48-hour period of time, and obviously the traffic was excruciatingly slow.
MARGARET WARNER: Despite the slow evacuation, the death toll from Rita has been small. A major factor in both clogging highways and saving lives is that far more citizens obeyed evacuation orders than expected.
That wasn't the case when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans last month. Thousands there either wouldn't leave or couldn't due to lack of transportation. And some who tried to leave were thwarted by flooded highways and crumpled bridges. More than 1,000 people lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina. Forecasters had predicted the size and fury of both hurricanes.
But there would be little or no warning for other emergencies, like a terrorist attack. The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered haphazard evacuations of New York and Washington. In New York, thousands were forced to walk out of the disaster zone as train service was stopped and traffic halted.
In Washington, gridlock reined. One major artery south out of the city was closed for hours because it passed within a quarter-mile of the stricken Pentagon.
|Discussing evacuation plans|
WARNER: So what lessons did other cities take from these hurricanes? And how has
it affected their planning? For that, we turn to local officials directly involved
in evacuation planning in three very different cities. Edward Reiskin is deputy
mayor for public safety and justice for Washington, DC; Carlos Castillo is the
director of Miami-Dade County's office of emergency management in Florida; he
is also the county's deputy fire chief. And Gil Kerlikowske is the police chief
Deputy Mayor Reiskin, I will start with you. Are the problems we saw in New Orleans and Houston forcing a rethinking of Washington, D.C.'s evacuation plans?
DEPUTY MAYOR EDWARD REISKIN: Yeah. Well, we have done a lot of evacuation planning since 2001 and there are a lot of things that we have put in place to improve our ability to move people out of the district. But every time there's a major event such as what we have seen in the South we certainly try to take lessons learned and the main things we have seen from down there that are causing us to rethink the way we approach our evacuations are, first of all, we are looking at people in the District who would not be able to -- might not have the means to get themselves out, to self-evacuate.
So we are doing things like looking at cross-referencing Department of Motor Vehicle records with census data to see where our concentrations of non-automobile-owning people are. We are taking a second look at where special needs populations are that might not be able to move themselves, and then we are looking at the modes of transportation that we would use to assist them. We have a plan for buses to move those folks out. But we are reevaluating on a region-wide basis the availability and deployment of those buses, particularly for a no-notice event.
We are also looking at water transportation as we sit on two rivers: the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and finally, we're looking more seriously at rail -- partnering with Amtrak and some of the other rail providers in the district to help people, to help move people out, in addition to the metro system that we have here.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Chief Kerlikowske, what about in Seattle, what lessons did Seattle take from New Orleans and Houston?
CHIEF GIL KERLIKOWSKE: I think what will be happening here and across the country is people will be looking at what level official orders and evacuation or requests of evacuation. It won't be just reevaluating routes used because we only have one major north-south corridor here, I-5. On a good day I-5 is massive gridlock.
And the other thing is: what is the message being given? How is it communicated? We saw people in Katrina that did not evacuate and we saw people when Mayor White and others in Houston, far more people evacuated than they had plans for. So I think there will be serious reconsideration of what does evacuation mean. Maybe in some cases, we should be thinking about, depending on the type of disaster, shelter in place, which is a term being used a lot more frequently now.
MARGARET WARNER: And Director Castillo in Miami-Dade County, all the experts we talked to today said of all the areas in the country, Florida is the best prepared because you all have had the most practice. Nonetheless, did New Orleans and Houston offer any lessons for you?
CHIEF CARLOS CASTILLO: Well, we have had some practice. And for us, the big turning point was Hurricane Andrew in 1992 where we really -- it was a Category 5 storm that affected primarily the south end of Miami-Dade County. But since then, things like evacuating the public, and getting the public to understand the need to evacuate and the reasons for it is always a challenge because we have new people that come to the area all the time and there's a lot of development going on especially along the coast. So our challenge is always to make sure that they are partnering with us in being prepared and knowing that they don't have to drive north because Florida being a peninsula really driving north out of the county isn't going help. For an oncoming storm we expect them to just drive tens of miles perhaps, and a little further east out of the evacuation zones.
|Communicating with citizens|
MARGARET WARNER: Let's talk a little bit more about the communication problem and how people are supposed to know what they are supposed to do. Deputy Mayor Reiskin, let me begin with you. The chief in Seattle said sometimes the better thing is just for people to shelter in place. In which circumstances is that better, and how do you communicate with the public if, let's say, traditional communication is down? For instance, power goes out and people don't have televisions?
DEPUTY MAYOR EDWARD REISKIN: Well, one of the big pushes in our preparedness planning, and we recently, actually coincidentally just as the storms were hitting, we had launched a region-wide citizen awareness campaign to really push this message. Citizens do have to partner with government. And one of the main messages is to have a portable radio, have batteries, flashlight, water; have those basic essentials in place so you know where to go for information.
MARGARET WARNER: When you are saying you are starting this public awareness campaign, I mean, how are you communicating this?
DEPUTY MAYOR EDWARD REISKIN: This campaign is a multimedia campaign; we're doing it through community training sessions; we're doing it through television, radio, billboards, as many channels as we can to reemphasize this message.
The silver lining of what's happening in the Gulf Coast is that it is helping to raise awareness. But we do have in the District of Columbia and now rolling out throughout the region a text alert system where people can get messages through any kind of text device, e-mail, cell phone. We also have a reverse 911 system where we basically can send a regular telephone call to people with messages.
And I think that the chief is absolutely right. Most cases, most scenarios that are likely to happen, evacuation is not what's best for the residents and it's not what we would recommend. In fact, evacuation may put people more in harm's way than keep them from it. And they, of course, also inhibit the movement of emergency response equipment. So our main message to folks is to shelter in place, is to stay where they are.
MARGARET WARNER: Chief in Seattle, Chief Kerlikowske, what about -- how different is it if you are preparing for an event that is anticipated, say a hurricane, I know you all don't have hurricanes there, versus one that is unanticipated and it strikes that warning like an earthquake or a terrorist attack?
CHIEF GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, the unanticipated one, and the warning for an earthquake of course will be the trembling of the earth. And we just went through that, actually just a few years ago. But I think there's some important things to remember and that is talking about not communicating a sense of fear or a sense of panic to people. The face of the local official, their mayor, their police chief, at times, their governor is the face of local government that people want to trust. It really won't be the President of the United States, the secretary of defense.
I just left our mayor who gave his 2006 budget speech and he has you vowed to re-energize this city and to make sure that we do as much outreach as possible to have all the things in place so we can, essentially for at least 72 hours have families and people take care of themselves.
Remember, too, that first responders, police and fire, are going to be absolutely overwhelmed by the disaster, whatever it is they are facing.
|Who is in charge?|
MARGARET WARNER: But what you are saying is, in the end, even an evacuation order, whatever the instructions are, that's really up to the local authorities?
CHIEF GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Unless it is so widespread that actually we rethink who is going to give that order. And having grown up in Florida and been a police chief in Florida, I am very familiar with the widespread swath of hurricane damage. And I think they may want to rethink who is going to give those large-scale orders.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Castillo, how clear are the lines of authority in Florida? For instance, you are in Miami-Dade County which is a broad area, bigger than just the city. Who is in charge? Is it clear who is in charge?
CHIEF CARLOS CASTILLO: Well, it is clear through the Miami-Dade County Code that the mayor is in charge and basically the incident commander for a declared emergency or disaster here. We have a policy group following the national incident management system; we have a policy group that consists of me as the emergency management director, the county manager, and the mayor.
And in case of a necessary evacuation, I would recommend to the manager and the mayor who then the mayor would order this evacuation for us.
MARGARET WARNER: And a quick question -- go ahead. And one quick question. I know you are better prepared than others. But how would you avoid the two problems we saw in New Orleans? One: People who didn't want to leave or couldn't leave; or in this case of Houston, so many people leaving that you do have gridlock?
CHIEF CARLOS CASTILLO: Well, two ways. The tough part of those three questions is the people who don't want to leave. And that change is based on their perception of a threat to them, or possible threat to them.
For people who want to leave, and perhaps don't have transportation, we have implemented several programs. One is a, when we bring people to shelters, or we open shelters or evacuate from the areas, the coastal areas, we have our metro buses that pick people up at predetermined points that are marked. They are called hurricane bus pick-up points, where people can catch a bus there.
The buses are -- their regular schedules or regular routes are canceled and then they just run the hurricane route. And that allows people the opportunity to come forward and to be able to leave if they want to.
The part of eliminating or preventing gridlock, you know, it is a careful balance. If we decide on an evacuation too soon, and the hurricane takes a turn and turns away, the next time you ask for an evacuation it will be tougher for people to heed the warning. If we wait too long, then we won't be able to get out the 400,000 people that must evacuate.
So our purpose in getting that message out is we tell people early on, if you live in an evacuation zone, now is the time to leave; leave early so that there's still time. We hope they have made arrangements before the storm and have a plan on where they are going to go.
MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly to you, Mr. Reiskin. Whose responsibility is it to have a place to go? Is that something the city of Washington, DC is arranging or is it up to the individuals to know, if they could get out, where they would go?
DEPUTY MAYOR EDWARD REISKIN: Primarily, it is the responsibility of individuals. Since the District of Columbia is relatively small, most people evacuating will leave the district. We partner with Maryland and Virginia to establish shelter sites. But it is really, ultimately, it's up to the individual to know where they are going to go.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you all three very much.
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|