U.S. Coast Guard

As storms increase and sea level rises, a good plan to flee the city becomes a huge part of protecting those who live in it.

NEW ORLEANS—The order to evacuate came late by many accounts. Some residents who'd grown up with hurricanes, like Paulette Scott Tubré, now in her early sixties*, didn't think it would be that bad. "My brothers got loaded down with beer and wine," she recalls, "and we nailed blankets over the windows. Then I said, 'Now let's pray,' and we rode out the storm."

But the water kept rising. After days trapped in the second floor of the house, the batteries on their portable television dying, the water up to her chin, Tubré was led out to her brother's skiff, which took her and some others to a nearby bridge. Helicopters rescued those they could, she says, then airboats took her and the rest of the stranded to safety.

Dealing with disasters, small or large, is all about movement. Getting people away from the danger, bringing emergency response operations toward the danger, transporting casualties to medical services, delivering supplies and materiel to support these operations, and managing this movement through areas with infrastructure that may be either damaged or loaded beyond capacity. Threats like earthquakes and terrorist attacks give no notice, but one thing we know for sure — the water will keep rising. The growing consensus is that while attempts to halt climate change and rising sea levels are necessary, coastal cities have no choice but to prepare for its inexorable encroachment.

"The list of incidents for which evacuation is an appropriate response is long and growing by the day," says Brian Wolshon, founding director of the Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency at Louisiana State University. More than 400 natural and human-caused incidents require evacuation each year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Wildfires, HAZMAT incidents, floods, and train derailments are among the triggers, but hurricanes prompt the largest evacuations — 1.5 million in Louisiana alone for Hurricane Katrina.

The stakes are high. Most who did not evacuate Katrina either suffered post-apocalyptic conditions or perished. The hurricane took more than 1,800 lives, 300,000 homes, a quarter-million jobs, and caused approximately $80 billion in property damage. The spray-painted "X" and other coded markings left by rescue teams remain on some houses to this day. The well-known vulnerability of the failed levees and the ensuing chaos — such as seen in the Superdome, a "shelter of last resort" for those who did not or could not evacuate — led numerous officials in the aftermath of the storm to speak the same words.

"This can never happen again."

•       •       •       •       •

In 1998, Hurricane Georges triggered New Orleans' first major evacuation in twenty years, and made clear that normal traffic configurations were not up to the task. New plans were put in place, then put to the test by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It did not go well. A 2006 report by Wolshon found that over-reliance on westward traffic movement, inefficient loading of the freeway, and congestion from the confluence of evacuation routes for other cities were among the big problems, as well as capacity-restricting traffic control strategies. Luckily the storm missed New Orleans.

"But plans don't change because people are forward-looking," says Wolshon. "Plans only change as a result of failure."

Brian Wolshon shows how traffic reached a dead stop before Hurricane Rita. (Dan Glass)

Prior to 20 years ago, there were no plans. Storm-prone areas lacked a critical highway protocol called contraflow that is now commonplace for many vulnerable US cities. Contraflow maximizes road network capacity by turning inbound lanes in the outbound direction. It is a simple concept, but complex in practice. Some segments of freeway are reversed, others closed; off-ramps become on-ramps; barriers must be moved and response personnel positioned. And hundreds of thousands of people have to make their way through unfamiliar detours to enter the contraflow system, onto controlled roadways leading to various destinations perhaps 150 miles away.

When we met in his office, Wolshon illustrated the complexities of the protocol by pulling up a photo of Houston's evacuation for Hurricane Rita. He'd been told by city officials years prior that Houston didn't need contraflow. "Then at the last minute they realized they needed it, but when you do contraflow seat-of-the-pants, this is what you get." The photo shows all lanes of traffic at a dead stop, backed up for miles. Chokepoints and needed services weren't considered. He points to red boxes on the two-screen image indicating problems from the resulting congestion, including ambulances impeded by blocked shoulder lanes, and an epidemic of empty gas tanks caused by idling engines. Wolshon says they were able got people on to the contraflow, but then had no way of getting them off.

The ultimate goal is to disperse traffic throughout the network as much as possible between the point of departure and various destinations to avoid bottlenecks, while keeping in mind vital services. It's a bit like fluid dynamics, but Wolshon warns that this is a mistaken analogy, saying that "fluid flow doesn't stop to change a diaper, or run out of gas, or get hungry." The human factor is also what makes other transport modes less feasible for evacuation purposes. Trains and barges either aren't fit for mass embarkation outside of a station, or offer insufficient capacity, or don't have the facilities to handle human cargo. Airplanes are fast but expensive, and airports may already be full. The road, for now, is the way out.

A contraflow crossover on Interstate 10. (Dan Glass)

Budgets constrain road-building such that even rush-hour traffic is rarely accommodated, but cities don't have to build new projects for evacuation preparation, says Wolshon. They can just build existing projects with evacuation in mind. A median crossover or paved cut added to an entrance ramp is a negligible cost, for instance, but vastly improves flow when needed during an emergency. They can also be useful for other special situations like major accidents or stadium event traffic.

Houston now has specially-marked "evaculanes," paved shoulders that extend the length of evacuation routes uninterrupted, which are part of every new highway project. "Planning is key — the devil is always in the details," says Wolshon. "And you have to be willing to imagine problems."

•       •       •       •       •

After 9/11, people were shocked to learn that first responder agencies such as the police and fire departments couldn't communicate with each other directly. Communications interoperability — the key phrase here — was a nationwide problem. Enter Col. Joseph Booth, former deputy superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, now executive director at LSU's Stephenson Disaster Management Institute. Booth began implementation of the nation's first 700MHz technology initiative for public safety communications around 2004, and later formed a three-state coalition to create a common communications architecture for first responders among the Gulf States.

Communication becomes critical during an evacuation. (Dan Glass)

"After Ivan," Booth recalls, "the superintendent called me into his office and said, 'This can't ever happen again.' " Motorists were in the dark about where to go and when, as well as where to find food, gas, and accommodation on the way. "We even had people driving into the danger area when we were trying to get them out," says Booth. "If you don't give people information, they're going to make their own decisions."

He was given authority to make changes, which resulted in contraflow plans of unprecedented scale and control. Booth and his team took to the streets with outlines of their "big new plan," seeking out vulnerable segments of the population to see if it could be easily understood and remembered. It was put to the test by Katrina only a few months later, with Booth serving as Incident Commander. The levee failure and neglect of the carless were disasters, but by most measures the road evacuation operations themselves went well, requiring half of the assumed 72-hour clearance time, and with a small number of directly-related traffic injuries and deaths.

Eventually Booth wants to give evacuees a place to send information about accidents or other problems, since they often see these before emergency personnel do, then push information and options back out to people to use accordingly. Mobile applications do exist for evacuation and disaster preparedness, some with GPS mapping indicating services, but many are hampered by the difficulty of coordinating among regional agencies. Booth is even interested in gamification of the preparedness mindset. This is a medium worth exploring; imagine a video game where players are first responders, evading danger and rescuing victims. Among all the first-person shooter games, how about a first-person saver? (There is one, in fact.)

Emergency communication will get a boost from the U.S. DOT, which is now laying fiber optic cable on the freeways as part of its Intelligent Transportation System. The ITS is a suite of integrated communication technologies designed to provide connectivity between road infrastructure, vehicles, and consumer mobile devices. The functionality anticipates vehicle-to-vehicle communication for safety and other advancements, but can greatly improve evacuation operations.

At present, the primary ITS technology on the freeway system is ubiquitous and familiar: closed-circuit televisions for detection, traffic volume and weather sensing equipment, and 911 call centers, with information delivered primarily in the form of message signs ("Expect Delays"), highway advisory radio, and 511 travel information telephone services. While the vision of real-time communication between infrastructure, emergency management agencies, and personal vehicles is a ways off, the communications architecture and protocols of ITS are comprehensive and provide clear and actionable goals for emergency management, despite the slow-going deployment across the country's arterial road network.

So improving communications is critical. But when asked what the biggest potential problem is for the near future, Booth says with leaden decisiveness, "Infrastructure. The national transportation system is aging." The question then is, at which point does fixing the old take priority over adding the new?

•       •       •       •       •

More than 100,000 people didn't have access to a car when the evacuation order was given for Katrina, revealing a gaping flaw in an otherwise comprehensive plan. The majority of these were low-income, elderly, or disabled, so that when the delayed order was given, those needing the most preparation time were left with the fewest options — one more thing that could never happen again.

The City Assisted Evacuation Plan was the answer. Lt. Colonel Jerry Sneed, now the deputy mayor for public safety and director of the city's Homeland Security Office, had offered his services to the city just a few days after retiring from 32 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, which was also immediately after Hurricane Katrina. He developed and conducted the "Look and Leave" program in the Lower Ninth Ward, and after two months of volunteering, he was hired by the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and helped develop the plan to evacuate up to 30,000 of those most needing assistance.

Dan Glass

The plan was tested in 2008 in advance of Hurricane Gustav. City buses picked up approximately 18,000 people at "evacuspots" around the city, and transferred them to state-operated coach buses which brought them to shelters away from danger. The program was considered successful, but the operation's volunteer coordinator, Robert Fogarty, found it needed improvement, and that many residents weren't aware of the program. Fogarty started Evacuteer.org to provide trained groups committed to the cause, and commissioned public art to replace the easily-missed CAEP signs. A fourteen-foot-high figure with its hand out — like hailing a cab, or more appropriately, catching beads from a Mardi Gras float — now marks each of the seventeen locations.

Working with existing community and faith-based groups near the evacuspots is the best way to provide volunteers who are in tune with local needs, says David Morris, current president of the executive leadership committee* at Evacuteer.org. Each year the recruitment drive begins at zero, and builds to a core of at least 500, though many are return volunteers who get re-certified. "Hello" and "Goodbye Hurricane Season" gatherings also help to maintain commitment among volunteers, and community awareness of the program in addition to official city literature.

A map of evacuation meeting places for New Orleans residents without a car. (Via Evacuteer.org)

John Renne, director of the Merritt C. Becker Jr. Transportation Institute at the University of New Orleans, has focused on evacuation of the carless and other vulnerable groups ever since having to evacuate just a week after moving to the city, in 2005. He says that most evacuation-prone cities don't have adequate plans for the elderly, disabled, or carless. Looking forward, Renne says improving individual mobility is one possible focus, but that more transit — primarily buses — will provide better overall accessibility to evacuation.

"But we need funding for this," he says. "That's always the problem."

•       •       •       •       •

It usually costs cities and states hundreds of millions to evacuate people. Airlifts costs $10,000 a person. Government and businesses shut down. Mass evacuations can often result in a number of injuries and deaths; before Katrina, a bus evacuating senior citizens caught fire, killing 24. Some have suggested that evacuations are usually worse than the storm, and that for the same cost, we could build elevated schools so that everyone could walk less than a mile to safe, well-prepared facilities and wait it out.

Dan Glass

The truth is that local governments don't have enough funds, services, helicopters, or fanboats to help everybody during and immediately after a disaster. Joseph Booth says the trend is toward greater personal accountability. Everyone should be prepared to provide for themselves in the first 72 hours of a crisis, and to have extra to share. ("The first 72 are on you" is the saying along the Gulf Coast.) And when evacuation is a possibility, the decision about where to end up should be made at home, not on the road.

Then of course there's the problem of returning to normal life. New Orleans lost almost 30 percent of its population after Katrina, with many unable or unwilling to return after evacuating to places like Houston or Atlanta. Outside companies often come to provide goods and services following a disaster, making it even more difficult for local businesses to be revived. "The goal is to keep Louisianans in Louisiana," says Wolshon. "That's what recovery is."

When it comes to transportation resiliency, we return largely to planning. A 2010 report from the LSU Gulf Coast Research Center for Evacuation and Transportation Resiliency outlines measures including advance prioritization of road, rail and other repair operations, raising elevations for selected bridge projects, planning off-site storage of vulnerable assets, and flood protection for public transit lines. (For the freight community, communications is the "Achilles heel.") The report notes that the evacuation network as a whole still "lacks adequate communication and coordination across modes."

But the range of stakeholders and interests, compounded by a fickle marketplace, makes a coordinated investment in this realm a daunting task. A key problem is allocating resources, says Wolshon. Nobody wants to spend money, time, and effort on an event that may not happen, even if it seems that 100-year storms are coming at much shorter intervals. We know that nature (and we ourselves) will throw more and bigger challenges our way, but anticipating them takes imagination, and implementing them takes will and money.

Still the question we need to keep asking ourselves — if we truly agree that the likes of Hurricane Katrina "can never happen again" — is not how far ahead can we afford to plan, but how much can we afford to not plan that far ahead?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to David Morris as the executive director of Evacuteer.org. Morris is president of the executive leadership committee at Evacuteer.org. Also, Paulette Scott Tubré is in her early sixties, not her late sixties. 

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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