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Evacuations

Teresa Scott, P.E.
Director of Public Works
City of Gainesville, Florida
Chair, APWA Emergency Management Committee

One of the lessons learned from Katrina was that states and urban areas need to update emergency plans and include evacuation and shelter-in-place procedures for the general population and those with special needs. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the report Identification and Analysis of Factors Affecting Emergency Evacuations, "Large-scale evacuations of greater than 1,000 people occur approximately once every two weeks in the United States." If you consider then that there are probably small-scale evacuations occurring on a much more frequent basis then it makes sense that every community needs to develop an evacuation plan to be prepared for an inevitable event.

A pre-planned, well-coordinated evacuation plan is intended to save lives and prevent injuries. The NRC found that the critical components of successful evacuations were high-level coordination and cooperation among various emergency response agencies and an effective command structure that was empowered to make decisions as needed. There are many functional areas with a role in ensuring that effective evacuation plans are developed and implemented. Several of these fall under the jurisdiction of public works and therefore it is critical that we take an active role in developing evacuation plans for our communities.

A community risk assessment should be undertaken to identify vulnerabilities and potential impacts that should be considered when developing an evacuation plan. For example, in anticipation of a hurricane approaching, consideration of areas that are subject to flooding is important information. Maps identifying areas subject to flooding and the depths of flooding are typically managed through public works. We are generally the map repository and have information on floodways, floodplains, pump structures, levees, and other flood control structures. We typically understand the magnitude of impact in the event any of these structures were to fail. Consideration of non-notice events such as Haz-Mat incidents is also vital. Evacuation routes utilizing overpasses or bridges might be compromised by vapors or fire from vehicular or train-related events. Of growing concern is the trend toward single-access neighborhoods or private communities. If the limited access point is blocked or unavailable, there should be some prior thought how to remove people from the area. This type of information is valuable in the identification of the number of potentially impacted structures and people and assisting in the decision to evacuate an area or alerting people to shelter in-place.

It is important to take into account the transportation needs of a potentially impacted population and whether there are special transport needs such as stretchers and wheelchairs. In some instances the transit system or the school bus fleet falls under the jurisdiction of public works. The transit system may be called upon to assist in evacuations of large numbers of people, some of which may have special transportation needs. Generally the transit agency, through its ADA transportation program, has access to lift-equipped vans or vehicles equipped for special needs. It is important to have an understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the transport system and where additional resources can be obtained in the event an evacuation is implemented.

If the impacted population will need the assistance of transit to evacuate there will need to be decisions made as to how to accommodate the people. Will there be pre-designated pick-up locations identified? This may be a good option on a fixed-route system where there is familiarity with stop locations and the number of people can be anticipated and accommodated by the fixed route. There may be a need to specify gathering points for people to come to in order to load up on pre-staged buses. In this case it will be important to have adequate buses and staging area that is well-coordinated and can accommodate orderly loading. There will need to be consideration given to signing and other communication capabilities to keep people informed of pertinent information and directions to assure their safety.

The NRC found that traffic issues, such as traffic congestion, were reported as significant contributing factors in less efficient evacuations studied. There are many responsibilities covered under public works agencies that deal with traffic issues and traffic congestion mitigation. Evacuation routing is an area that public works personnel need to take an active role in defining and implementing. Knowledge and understanding of the road network, traffic signal system capabilities, and signing/communication capabilities and needs are all-important considerations in the development of evacuation routes into/out of or through a jurisdiction. Considerations must be given to such things as whether or not the traffic signal system has the ability or capability of readily implementing signal timing changes to increase the capacity of a roadway. If signal timing adjustments can be implemented in real time it may reduce demand for law enforcement personnel to direct traffic along an evacuation route. There are growing numbers of traffic management centers with real-time capability in managing road networks that include cameras and variable message signs. These can be extremely useful in developing efficient evacuation routing.

Alternatives may be the use of stop-time switches in signal cabinets at major intersections to allow law enforcement officers or operators to manually control signals or override the signal to flashing yellow mode to give priority to the evacuation route directional movement. These operational alternatives will reduce or prevent the need to have officers standing in the street directing traffic for long periods of time. It may also be necessary to implement a staged evacuation, although these are much harder to accomplish. In a staged evacuation, residents from certain areas are released in sequence in an attempt to limit congestion on the evacuation routes. This often is frustrated when persons from non-selected areas decide they are ready to leave and move in advance.

In the event a perimeter is established around an evacuation area it may be necessary to provide detour routes to move traffic away from the area. Detouring routes should be coordinated with evacuation routes to ensure that there are no conflicts in traffic flow.

A plan must include ensuring that the routes are given priority for clearing debris or other obstructions that would make the route inaccessible or less efficient once identified as an evacuation route.

Public awareness of the hazards, of evacuation procedures, and alert methods are also identified as critical contributing components of an effective evacuation plan. A public awareness plan should include education of the various types of hazards that may occur and prompt the need for evacuation as well as identification of pertinent evacuation procedures and methods in which the affected public would be notified. Generally when the public is aware of the hazards and procedures for keeping them and their families safe they will be much more cooperative with evacuation efforts.

In addition to evacuation details a fully-developed plan should also include how a temporary and permanent reentry process will be implemented. Temporary reentry is most often utilized when either a hazard may still exist or the homes are too severely damaged to allow residents to occupy them. This may occur as the result of a large-scale fire incident, or a weather-related disaster such as a tornado or hurricane. What type of identification would be required, who will check the persons into the area, who will check them out and how long will they be allowed to stay are all areas to be addressed. The use of permits or passes to identify approved persons and vehicles should also be considered in advance.

For permanent reentry a plan should address many of the same items described above with additional attention to sanitation, health and medical issues those returning may face. If there is no potable water or sanitation available, will they be safe returning and staying in the area? Will your community expect your staff to provide portable toilets, solid waste services and bottled water? These are all areas your community and your department should address as you review your plans.

As with all aspects of emergency operations, once a plan is developed it is important to train and exercise the plan to increase the likelihood that if implemented the evacuation plan will effectively and efficiently meet the objective to save lives and prevent injuries.

Teresa Scott can be reached at (352) 334-5070 or scottta@cityofgainesville.org.