The Logic and Logistics of Mass Evacuations Mass evacuations are a monumental undertaking. As was apparent in New Orleans, they are not just about moving people from one place to another. What lessons does the Katrina evacuation hold for the future?
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The Logic and Logistics of Mass Evacuations

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The Logic and Logistics of Mass Evacuations

The Logic and Logistics of Mass Evacuations

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

As tropical storm Ophelia looms off the coast of the Carolinas, authorities in North Carolina ordered a mandatory evacuation for Hatteras Island and issued voluntary evacuation orders for other Barrier Islands. This comes just weeks after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, leaving destruction in its wake.

With the body count in the affected areas mounting, people are asking: Did authorities in Louisiana and Mississippi do enough to get residents out of the region before the hurricane hit? Evacuations are a monumental undertaking. As we learned from New Orleans, it's not just about moving people from one place to another; it requires equipping shelters with appropriate food and medical supplies, ensuring that security forces are where they are most needed, engineering traffic routes out of the region to prevent gridlock, and, of course, educating the public so they know when and where to go. And even with all that planning, some residents may still refuse to leave.

Today, a look at what makes evacuations work and what makes them fail. We'd like to hear from you. What would convince you to evacuate? And if you had to, would you know what to do, where to go, what, if anything, to take? Our number here in Washington: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is

Our first guest is NPR's Laura Sullivan, who's been reporting on how officials in New Orleans responded to hurricane warnings, and she joins us here in Studio 3A.

Great to have you with us, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN (NPR News): Thanks. It's great to be here.

NEARY: Well, tell us about the New Orleans evacuation plan. Was there one?

SULLIVAN: There is a New Orleans evacuation plan. It's 46 pages of very well-reasoned, very calm, explicit directions on what New Orleans residents are supposed to do in the case of a hurricane. And it, for the most part, explains how people need to pack a first-aid kid, put their water together and leave the city. So what it does well is explain, for people with cars, how to get on the freeways, which way the traffic is going to be flowing, and how to get out of the city. What it does not do very well is explain, for people without any transportation or without any money, how they might be able to leave the city.

NEARY: And, obviously, we saw the consequences of that.

SULLIVAN: Exactly.

NEARY: So some part of the plan did work, would you say?

SULLIVAN: There was a part of the plan that worked extremely well. They got more than a million people out of New Orleans. They turned all of their freeways northbound, and it was just a steady stream of cars heading to the northern parts of the state and out of the state. It was quite remarkable, because previous hurricanes, like Hurricane Ivan, there was traffic jams that lasted 12 hours and a number of very elderly and frail senior citizens died along the route. So in that sense, the--what they call the contraflow, the opposite moving of traffic, worked really well for New Orleans, and they were sort of surprised that it worked as well as it did. What didn't work well was the hundred thousand people that were left behind.

NEARY: Now we know in the case of New Orleans that different categories of hurricanes were going to affect that city differently. Did the evacuation plan deal with different categories of hurricanes at all, or was it the same for all hurricanes?

SULLIVAN: It was pretty much the same for all hurricanes. It's up to the mayor to decide whether or not to evacuate the city, and for the most part, they'll do voluntary evacuations, which is what Mayor Nagin did, the mayor of New Orleans. On Saturday he did a voluntary evacuation, and then on Sunday he turned around and did the first-ever mandatory evacuation in New Orleans' history.

NEARY: And that was when he got what news, the news that...

SULLIVAN: That was when he--when they found out that the hurricane was headed straight for them and that it was turning into a Category 4.

NEARY: Yeah. So who left and who stayed behind?

SULLIVAN: Everybody...

NEARY: There was a mandatory order sent out, but not everybody left.

SULLIVAN: Not everybody left. Everybody with a car, pretty much, left. Everybody hitched their boats to the back of their trucks and drove out of town. The people that stayed were the people who didn't have cars--a lot of poor people--who also didn't have money to put themselves up in a hotel. I mean, it's not just a matter of getting yourself eight hours north, but where are you going to stay when you get there? How are you going to feed yourself?

So there were a number of people that--the emergency plan says that there will be staging areas provided, and that the city will then come with buses and pick the people up and take them out of the city. In this case, the reports that we have so far is that a lot of the buses did not arrive. So if--some people went to the bus stops and no buses ever came. They did...

NEARY: So they did have a plan to evacuate people by bus?

SULLIVAN: True, but not a very good plan, because they did not have enough buses or enough drivers willing to actually evacuate people from the city. The other problem was that they did make some effort in the plan, and in actuality, to have different evacuation sites, like elementary schools. There were 10 sites that they had doled out. But none of these sites were actually going to work well if the city were to flood. What we saw happening in New Orleans is that they would--they made the Superdome the main site of evacuation. The last-resort site became the number-one site to take people. And it seems, from all the people that I've talked to, that what they were expecting to happen is to have the people come to the Superdome, have the storm hit, come and pass, and then send people home.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

SULLIVAN: They never anticipated, or do not seem to have prepared in the least for, the fact that the city might be underwater and that people would not be able to return home.

NEARY: Yeah. And they didn't have enough supplies at these--at the places they had designated as shelters.

SULLIVAN: Right. They barely had any supplies. And then the Convention Center was an a--just lawlessness. It was complete chaos, you know, gangs running around. People were stabbed and murdered, and it was, you know...

NEARY: So they didn't anticipate the security needs, either.

SULLIVAN: Right. They did not have enough police officers, enough National Guard. They didn't have anybody that could bring the city under control or maintain order. With 25,000 people in one hot, sweltering Superdome, you're going to have problems. Their--according to the emergency plan, if you go to an evacuation shelter, you are supposed to bring two days' worth of food with you and a sleeping bag. And it also explicitly says that you are to arrive with a full stomach.


SULLIVAN: Yeah. But this--I mean, this is a very obscure emergency plan. This didn't really ever make it out into the general public.

NEARY: Well, that's what I was going to say. OK. So they have this within their emergency plan, but another aspect of evacuation is people have to know what they're supposed to do. How well did they get--did they educate the public about what needed to be done?

SULLIVAN: Well, if you were willing to sift through the New Orleans City Council Web site and find under the Emergency Preparedness Office and look for an Acrobat file that is 46 pages long, and look on to page 40-something, you would find that you are supposed to arrive at the shelter with these supplies. But other than that, not really anybody would ever know that.

NEARY: That's kind of sad.


NEARY: In other words, that's what you did as a journalist, it sounds like you're telling me.


NEARY: And that's how you know that little piece of information.


NEARY: And, you know, we are going to expand this conversation out to other cities, because, obviously, New Orleans--the catastrophe has happened, but are other cities ready? That's our question. I don't know if you've looked into that at all yet, Laura.

SULLIVAN: A lot of cities are, from what--from the reporting I've done--are aware that they need to evacuate people. And they've done the same sort of freeway exercises of turning all the lanes northbound or eastbound or whichever way they need to go. What a lot of cities have not prepared for is a number of people who will stay, and not just people who will stay because they can't go anywhere else, but people who want to stay.

NEARY: Right.

SULLIVAN: There are people who say, `I have nowhere else to go. I'm just going to ride this thing out.'

NEARY: Yeah. Let's take a call now from Dana. She's in Ft. Lauderdale, California. Hi, Dana. Go ahead.

Dana? Hi. Are you there?

DANA (Caller): Hi. This is Dana.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead, Dana.

DANA: I live in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We were spared the massive brunt of Katrina, thankfully, but I was waiting a little bit too long when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. We thought it was going to be just a tropical storm. I didn't put any shutters up and, going throughout the night, was a little concerned about how strong she was going to be and whether or not we were going to be smart to sit in the house without any storm shutters up. And I guarantee you, anything greater than a Category 1, we're going to pack everything up and, you know, what we can fit in the car and head inland, maybe possibly even north, 'cause I don't want to take a chance of losing everything, like some people have...

NEARY: Is that because of what you've seen going on with Hurricane--what happened in Hurricane Katrina?

DANA: Yes, definitely. We're only two miles inland from the beach, where I live in Ft. Lauderdale.

NEARY: And do you know what the Ft. Lauderdale evacuation plan is? Do you have any idea what you are supposed to do in the case of a mandatory evacuation, for instance?

DANA: Yes. I'm involved with our local civic association, and I'm aware of the very small evacuation zone that they have set up. And usually it's right along the Intercoastal Waterway, which is mere hundreds of yards away from the Ocean. But--and they, you know, would like to get people out of mobile homes and whatnot, but I don't want to be anywhere near the ocean when a Category 2 or larger gets coming closer to us, 'cause it's gonna tear everything up, based on what I've seen previous hurricanes do.

NEARY: Yeah.

DANA: And I just don't want to take the chance and risk my life. I'd rather lose my house, come back and pick up some pieces, rather than lose my life.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Dana.

DANA: Thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: We're going to go to another guest now, John Sorenson. He is a distinguished researcher at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tennessee, and he joins us from the studios of WIVK in Knoxville.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN SORENSON (Oakridge National Laboratory): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: I want to expand this out a bit. I wanted to start out by talking about the psychology of an evacuation. What makes people finally decide they've got to get out? We just heard that man say, `I'm going to get out now. I've learned my lesson.' But sometimes people stay and they stay too long.

Mr. SORENSON: The first response people normally have to an order or recommendation to evacuate is one of slight disbelief: `It's not happening to me.' But usually that's replaced as information comes in to them through the news media, official channels or warning systems, and they form a perception of what the risk is to them. They talk to other people about what they're going to do and eventually make a decision to either stay or leave. And there's a lot of factors that affect whether people evacuate or do not evacuate.

NEARY: What makes somebody stay in the face of what, in this case, were clear warnings that it was going to be a very, very, very bad storm?

Mr. SORENSON: Some people think that they can weather the storm. Sometimes they're prisoners of experiences, like with Hurricane Camille. People did not evacuate because they survived Camille, so they figure they can survive any hurricane. There--good examples are people who just can't afford to leave. They don't have the resources to evacuate. They're poor, they're disenfranchised. They may be on the outside of communications systems that normal members of society rely on.

NEARY: Mr. Sorenson, we're going to continue this discussion after a short break.

John Sorenson is a distinguished researcher at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tennessee. And NPR reporter Laura Sullivan is also with me. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

We're talking about mass evacuations and how cities and individuals respond to the call to leave in the event of an emergency. Our guest is John Sorenson of the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tennessee. He's an expert in evacuation response and modeling. I'm also joined by Laura Sullivan, NPR reporter Laura Sullivan. You're invited to join the discussion. We'd especially like to hear from our listeners in the Carolinas who may be dealing with the possibility of a hurricane right now. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is

Laura Sullivan, to return to the situation in the Gulf Coast, we saw a lot of problems with evacuating the elderly. Let's talk about that a bit.

SULLIVAN: The evacuation of the elderly was a real particular problem for New Orleans in this case, because they had over 52 nursing homes, which turns into more than 5,000 elderly--elderly, frail, sick--people that needed to get out of the city. In this case, it is up to the nursing homes, and what the city has agreed with the nursing homes and the state officials is that it will be up to the nursing homes to evacuate their own patients. They're responsible for it. But they're not required or mandated by any law to actually evacuate. They do not--there's no set rule that if it's a Category 4 and the hurricane's on its way--that they must evacuate. So it's actually up to each individual nursing home whether or not they're going to.

And what we saw in New Orleans is that 15 nursing homes evacuated, and 37 of them stayed. And that turned out to be a critical misjudgment on their part. So far, the reports in from some of the people that I've talked to is that there are over 100 elderly people who died in nursing homes because they either drowned or they were dehydrated when the nursing homes ran out of water.

NEARY: This is really one of the great tragedies of this.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely.

NEARY: John Sorenson, let me return to you for a moment. How does a city draw up an effective evacuation plan that deals with some of the problems we've seen in New Orleans and we've been talking about--that is, transporting people who don't have their own cars, evacuating the elderly, and setting up shelters where people really can take shelter from the storm with the right supplies?

Mr. SORENSON: Well, I'm not familiar with New Orleans' plans, but certainly in other parts of the country and further hazardous situations, communities do develop detailed plans that include methods of transporting people who do not have transportation or the people with disabilities or the elderly. And oftentimes in--officials rely on sort of self-help networks, but those don't always work when people do not have friends or do not have relatives to take care of them. And in those cases, I think it's a community and state responsibility to see that adequate plans are in place to take care of the people who slip through the cracks in disasters.

NEARY: Interesting. I don't know if you heard Laura say before that in New Orleans, there--the public was supposed to know that they were supposed to bring some water and some food to the shelter with them, but that that hadn't been communicated very well to the public. So public education is really a very big part of this, is it not?

Mr. SORENSON: Yes. We all think that public education is critical, and certainly the Red Cross and FEMA has excellent materials that are oriented towards families as to what kind of disaster preparations they should make, what sort of family plans they should have and what sort of emergency supplies they should keep on hand in the event of a catastrophic event.

NEARY: But they've got to get that information out there.

Mr. SORENSON: Yes. I think our country has a ways to go with respect to becoming a nation that's fully prepared for calamities.

NEARY: All right. We're talking about mass evacuations and some of the challenges that cities face in planning for and implementing mass evacuations. If you'd like to join the conversation, the number is (800) 989-8255. And we're going to go to Jennifer, and she is in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JENNIFER: Basically, what I wanted to share was that I've noticed with this hurricane that we're expecting that--I don't know if it's because I'm more in tune with the notices because of Katrina, but it seems that we're getting a lot more specific information. For instance, on our cable channel, it specifically says that--you know, we're having a voluntary evacuation at the moment, and it says the shelters that are open--what to bring, a very specific list. And it's on our, you know, cable channel 24/7 right now, various information about the evacuation.

And what else? Our kids are out of school and, you know, this is just--it looks like when it does hit, it's only going to be a Category 1, but everybody's being very, very careful. And I think just the people that I've spoken to--you know, this is just something that we live with. We're--every single year we always have at least one hurricane--hurricane warning, anyway. And my mother lives on the ocean, or across the street from the ocean, and every year she's just adamant about not leaving. She's got three little dogs and she's always very adamant about not leaving. But I think since Katrina--you know, we spoke about it, and she said, you know, 3 or better she's definitely out of there. But, you know, I think if we evacuated, I'd probably drag her out.

NEARY: You're not going to evacuate? You don't see any need to at this point?

JENNIFER: Well, I'm not--no, not really evacuate if--tomorrow if the winds pick up--we live in a very wooded area. We have a lot of large trees around our house, so I think what I would do, because the ground is so saturated, is just drive inland a bit, you know, to a nearby inland town. But I don't want to be in the house when the winds start blowing.

NEARY: Yeah.

JENNIFER: So if it looks like it's coming this way, we'll do at least that. But for now...

NEARY: And you feel everybody's being just a little more careful now because of what they've just witnessed just a couple of weeks ago.

JENNIFER: Absolutely.

NEARY: Yeah. All right. Thanks so much for your call, Jennifer.


NEARY: Laura, before you go, just one last question, and that is--you've studied the New Orleans evacuation plan and have some sense of what went right, what went wrong. We talked about what went wrong and some of the things they did right, but what are the--what would you say would be the lessons that other cities really should learn from what happened?

SULLIVAN: I think one of the things that we see most dramatically with new Orleans is that they had the warnings on Friday that this massive hurricane was coming. Those warnings certainly picked up on Saturday, when they learned that it was a serious 4 or 5 hurricane that was headed their way. But still, at that point, New Orleans had not prepared the number of buses that it would take to evacuate the remaining 100,000 residents. In fact, they did not even get on the phone to call for buses until six hours after the hurricane had passed. So it takes three or four days to rally 1,100 buses, which is what it ended up taking. So at that point, the buses didn't arrive until Friday. So they had no supplies in the Superdome or at the Convention Center, not enough law enforcement, and they had no buses on the way.

NEARY: You know, on one level you could say it was a failure of imagination, that nobody could really imagine that it was going to be as bad as it was. But on the other hand, there was plenty of warning that it was going to be. I mean, there's some kind of human disconnect there that they just couldn't really believe it was going to happen. I won...

SULLIVAN: Sure. I mean, recently, they just did Hurricane Pam, which was a hurricane exercise, and they all went out there and pretended like this giant hurricane had hit New Orleans. They talked about the levee breaking. They talked about the city flooding. But yet, while they were able to grasp the idea that a huge hurricane was coming and that the city might be blown to smithereens, they were not able to wrap their minds around the idea that the city was going to be underwater.

NEARY: Yeah. Thanks so much for joining us, Laura.

SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.

NEARY: NPR's Laura Sullivan. Thanks so much, Laura.

And joining us now is Guy Daines. He is the former emergency management director for Pinellas County, Florida, and he wrote their emergency evacuation plan more than 20 years ago. He joins us by phone from his home in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. GUY DAINES (Former Emergency Management Director, Pinellas County, Florida): Well, thank you very much, Lynn.

NEARY: Now the first full test of your evacuation plan was in 1985, that was with Hurricane Elena. How did it go?

Mr. DAINES: Well, you know, we found it went very well. We wrote a very, very detailed plan and just the hurricane part for the response, the evacuation, was, like, 90 pages long, and for the recovery it was over 200 pages. And probably still if you went around the country today, you wouldn't find plans in that much detail. But even though we felt that it went extremely well, I surfaced 113 problems that we had to address after the storm and then we worked on a year just trying to correct those problems. So you have to have a basis for the detailed planning and, you know, then work from there. But we felt really good. It was the largest medical evacuation in the history of the United States at that time and also the largest single county sheltering evacuation in the history of the American Red Cross. We had 113,000 people in shelter just in this county.

NEARY: And how were those shelters set up? One of the failures I think we saw in New Orleans was that the shelters--people went to places where they thought they were going to find shelters and then there was chaos at the shelter. That's a big part of an evacuation plan, that--to have an organized, secure, well-supplied shelter?

Mr. DAINES: Well, it is, but you have to remember the situation in New Orleans is a little different. Where here in Pinellas, we're a large urban county, probably our evacuee population would be more than what you have in New Orleans, which now is probably 500,000 at that. At that time, it was 430, 440,000, and for the actual storm we evacuated about 300,000 people. But our shelters were primarily schools and we had also churches that were part of our primary shelters, and they were all run at the time by the American Red Cross.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a call now from--I believe it's Levi. If I'm mispronouncing that, let me know. And Levi's in Oklahoma City.

LEVI (Caller): Hi. How are you doing today?

NEARY: Good thanks. Go ahead.

LEVI: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma. I've been in Oklahoma all my life, and as you know, we're kind of known for tornado problems. But you know, ever since I've been in school, from kindergarten on up, every year, it's hammered into us the proper tornado precautions, the equipment that you need to have in your home. Even when you're five, you're told to have flashlights and, you know, battery-powered radios and such. And I don't know what the thing is in New Orleans, but I know that every time that a tornado's even possible in Oklahoma, we have great meteorologists on the air explaining to people, almost ad nauseam, about what precautions to take. But I think that even though, you know, it's hammered into my head for 20 years, it's helpful to those that have never heard it before to have it just spread all over. And I think that Oklahoma's really a good example and something that people could look at and so that's really a good way to do it on a local level to have, you know, shelters available and training constantly going on in the public schools.

NEARY: And have you ever actually been through a tornado? Have you ever experienced it?

LEVI: I've been close lots of times. I think anybody in Oklahoma can say they've been pretty close, and a lot of us can say we have. I haven't personally experienced one, but there--you know, a lot of times, we find ourselves sitting there and tornadoes heading in our direction, and we have to get in the bathtub and pull the mattress over your head sometimes.

NEARY: And you do it, even though it's not right there yet. You get in the bathtub and pull the mattress over your head.

LEVI: Yes, we do it. And it's drilled into us from the time we're in kindergarten that's what you do. If it's in the immediate vicinity or you hear the sirens blare, you do it, and you don't take the chance that you might be hurt. It's OK to be embarrassed a little bit by having to hide under a mattress for 20 minutes than to have suffered the consequences of being wrong.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call.

LEVI: Thank you.

NEARY: We're talking about some of the challenges of mass evacuations and also preparedness, as that caller just reminded us. If you'd like to join our discussion, the number 1 (800) 989-8255.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Mr. Sorensen, John Sorensen, that caller just made me think of several things. One is that there are a lot of different kinds of disasters that can strike. One is natural disasters and, as we just heard--we've been talking a lot about hurricanes lately, but there are also tornadoes and all different kinds of natural disasters. And then there are the terrorist attacks which we've been hearing much more of in recent years. And does an evacuation plan have to be different for different kinds of disasters?

Mr. SORENSEN: Well, I think you have can one basic evacuation plan, but it needs to be modified depending on the type of hazard you're facing. You don't evacuate for tornadoes; you take shelter. You may evacuate for a hazardous material release. It has to be very fast and very different than hurricanes. And so most communities faced with different types of hazards should take into account the characteristics of that hazard when it occurs and how they need to modify their basic evacuation plan to make it work.

NEARY: And, Mr. Daines, one other question I had as a result of that call, this idea of I guess it's personal responsibility. Where does personal responsibility fit in with an overall evacuation plan, and then preparing the individual for doing what he or she needs to do when the evacuation order goes out?

Mr. DAINES: Well, I think that's part of the overall problem. And any governmental agency on emergency management side, they've got to build into what they do how on they're going to prepare the public because it doesn't matter how well you plan, how detailed your plan is, if the public doesn't respond, you can just throw it out the window. And so it's extremely important. But what the individual--you know, when he was talking about being in school as a young person in Oklahoma, you have to remember that in the coastal areas of the United States, there's been a significant increase in the population. There's just a continually number of new people here that have never been through hurricanes before, which makes it even more difficult on trying to keep them informed on what to do.

NEARY: And also with hurricanes, a lot of times, the warnings go out, they don't turn out to be as bad as they were and sometimes people view them as a chance for partying. You see it all the time when hurricanes are coming. The people say, `No, no, no. We're going to stay. We're going to have a hurricane party,' that kind of thing.

Mr. DAINES: Oh, that's always been a problem, because on the emergency management side, one of our concerns has always been you issue an order and evacuation times are so high that you need to make a decision very early on issuing an evacuation order. And I think, as you well know, the Hurricane Center has gotten better in trying to tell you where that hurricane's going to go, but still today, the error factor involved 24 hours prior to landfall is a large segment of the coastline. So you have that, you're looking at that, and people, `Well, they evacuated us, but we didn't get hit. Next time, you know, we're going to stay.'

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. DAINES: So that is a problem.

NEARY: And how did you communicate when you were evacuating Pinellas County? How did you communicate to your people?

Mr. DAINES: Well, one of the things that I feel that impacted very highly on the evacuation was getting the police and fire out in the streets, driving up and down with their sirens on and telling people to evacuate. Now that was where the rubber meets the road. But then in addition to that, you're using the local emergency broadcast system, you're using TV, radio, everything.

NEARY: OK. When we come back from a short break, we're going to continue our discussion about evacuating large numbers of people out of the city. So stay with us.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Here are some of the headlines we're following at NPR News today. At today's confirmation hearings, senators tried to get definitive answers from chief justice nominee John Roberts. On a wide range of issues, Roberts stuck to general responses about his legal principles.

And President Bush today took personal responsibility for shortcomings in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. He said the storm had, quote, "exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government." You can hear details on these stories later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll talk about home. Is it just a physical place, or is it really where the heart is? And how do you recreate home when most of what you had is gone? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

Today, we're talking about mass evacuations and what might be done to make them go smoothly. Our guests are John Sorensen, an evacuation expert at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tennessee; also Guy Daines, former emergency management director of Pinellas County, Florida.

Mr. Daines, we just--you may have just heard me say that President Bush today said that Katrina has exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. How important is it for all levels of government to work together in executing an emergency evacuation plan?

Mr. DAINES: Well, you have to remember the way the system is supposed to work, and that is your lower level of government responds within its capability. When it's beyond their capability, they turn to the next level of government who--they provide support, and then beyond that, they turn to the federal government. So you have the local, state and the federal government involved in it. But the only way it can work is through excellent coordination. I mean, there has to be coordination or everything's going to fall apart. There has to be communications or everything's going to fall apart.

NEARY: And that's--John Sorensen, it seems like that needs to be worked on in the wake of Katrina.


Mr. DAINES: Would you let me comment on one thing?

NEARY: Sure, go ahead.

Mr. DAINES: I was listening to your show when they were talking about nursing home evacuation. Here in this county, during Hurricane Elena, we evacuated 19 nursing homes at the same time, all by plan. I only ha--from the emergency operations center, I had to talk to one nursing home administrator. It has been built into the plan. We had buses assigned, we had ambulances assigned, we had wheelchair lift vehicles assigned. And when it came to evacuate, they evacuated. And all we did is supported that evacuation, and we also evacuated three hospitals.

Now one of the shortfalls I see is that in New Orleans, they basically leave the nursing homes to use their own transportation, all their own food, water. It's their evacuation; government is not involved with it.

NEARY: Interesting.

Mr. DAINES: And they have to find a place to go. They have to provide their own transportation.

NEARY: I'm sure all these things are going to be looked at now after what happened.

Mr. DAINES: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

NEARY: Let's take another call now. Bruce, who is calling from Oregon. Hi, Bruce.

BRUCE (Caller): Yeah, hi. How's it going?

NEARY: Good, thanks. Go ahead.

BRUCE: Yeah. Actually, I wanted to say, first of all, my family--we usually have two weeks to a month's worth of food and water just to--so we can take care of ourselves if there was a problem. In the summer of 2002, we had a problem. We had a half-a-million-acre fire and--Are you guys there?

NEARY: Yes, we're here.

BRUCE: OK. So we--it burned up in a roadless wilderness area, so there was no, really, firefighters there because there's no houses or lives involved. But the Arizona fire was finally put out, and they brought the pros in. And when they got here, we finally had a town meeting with the guy that knows what's going on. He said the fire is so big, they don't think they'll stop it and he suggests you go home and evacuate, but it wasn't a forced evacuation. But for me--we had two horses, two dogs, two cats, a kid and a wife, so we did evacuate by choice.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

BRUCE: But they were set up pretty good. There's only really one asphalt road out of here, because the fire burned into Northern California and shut that part of the road off. But there was plans to get out, but most people were pretty stubborn and stayed, but we figured that, you know, we'll get out. But the good thing was they had--when we evacuated, we were able to call the law enforcement and they patrolled our house and made sure nobody broke in and whatnot.

NEARY: So there was security. Were you able to get your animals out? Did you go out with your animals?

BRUCE: Actually, yes. Yeah, we got our animals out. We found a lady we didn't know that had pasture and we put the horses there. And she actually had an old kennel that we put our dogs in.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

BRUCE: And within two days, out of a hotel room, she called us and said, `You know, I'm going out of town. Could you caretake my house while I'm gone?' So we ended up staying up there at her place with our horses and dogs.

NEARY: Oh, wow. OK.

BRUCE: So it worked out really well, but...

NEARY: And did anything happen to your property while you were gone? I mean, did the fire get there or...

BRUCE: Actually, it got close enough, but it was so smoky that it was hard to breathe. It was miserable. But we feared that once CNN News showed up that they were waiting to see the chaos if the fire did jump the road and head this way. We didn't want to be one of the ones stuck in traffic trying to get out of here, so we just got out of the way.

NEARY: Right. You're telling me you were more afraid of CNN than you were of the fire?

BRUCE: No. Well, no. It's just the big newscasters out here...

NEARY: Right.

BRUCE: ..they're waiting to see some action, and so we just got out of here.

NEARY: Right.

BRUCE: It was too hard to breathe. But there was--like I said, there was a real good plan. And now since then, there's a new regulation. If you build a new house, you got to clear the underbrush a hundred feet around your property. So that's kind of what they're doing now. But needless to say, I can't say how much to--having your own water, be self-sufficient as much as you can be and don't rely on anybody unless you have to.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for that call, Bruce.

BRUCE: Well, thank you very much.

NEARY: We're going to bring another guest in now. And I want to thank Guy Daines so much for being with us and for sharing your experience at--in Pinellas County, Florida. Thank you very much.

Mr. DAINES: Well, thank you.

NEARY: Guy Daines is a former emergency management director for Pinellas County, Florida.

And now we're joined by Fred May, a professor of emergency management at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He recently visited Biloxi, Mississippi, to look into a very specific issue about evacuations, and that is how non-English-speaking populations respond to evacuation orders.

Thanks so much for joining us, Mr. May.

Professor FRED MAY (Jacksonville State University): You're welcome.

NEARY: Well, what did you find out in your research?

Prof. MAY: It was a little bit of a surprise. I guess it's a matter of throwing in the wild card of different languages and cultures that get caught up in the hurricane and the advisories and the evacuation orders and how they respond to them kind of in various ways. And so across the spectrum, there were a lot of different examples of their different cultures that were this way or that way with the hurricane advisories and the evacuations orders.

NEARY: Did they know what to do? There were Vietnamese and Hispanic people. What happened?

Prof. MAY: Well, yeah. They seemed to be the ones that were, in a relative sense, more at risk than their English-speaking neighbors, because the hurricane advisories and the evacuation orders were coming across in English. And so there were some of the Vietnamese population that couldn't understand. And because of that, there were life-threatening situations that they ended up facing and not knowing really what to do or where to go to get help.

There's also aftermath problems just on being able to understand some of the advisories afterwards about health problems and how to use generators properly, carbon monoxide poisoning and things about illness and disease, a lot of information coming to them in English. And so they're a little bit at a disadvantage when the evacuation and the aftermath takes place.

NEARY: I understand you've done some research with Navajo Indians as an example of the way that culture and religion can play a role in people's decisions not to evacuate. Just tell us what happened there.

Prof. MAY: Yeah. Some cultures, they have kind of a lifelong way of looking at things. And in that case, with the Navajo Indians--they're quite a religious group, and their sense of disasters is that is God's will toward them. And so steps that they might be advised to take to protect themselves could be going contrary to their perception of what their god wants them to do. So as a result, they might be reluctant to actually protect themselves.

NEARY: So a lot may go into what people decide finally then. So--and also, it looks--what this sort of points to is the fact that evacuation plans need to deal with the fact that there are many different kinds of people out there.

Prof. MAY: Yeah, for good and bad. Well, for positive and negative, I guess you'd have to say. I encountered German-speaking people; I think about 10 percent of the population in Biloxi is German origin. And they went through World War II, and they tended to be better prepared. And the same with the English. I came across a person that had gone through World War II in England and she was well-prepared, as well.

The Vietnamese are an interesting group because they left Vietnam after the war in Vietnam in 1975 and came to the US basically with nothing. And so they find themselves here trying to build up a fishing business, for example, in Biloxi or a shrimping business, working all these years, 30 years actually, to get their fishing boat and their business going only to be faced by a hurricane, now losing it all again. But their culture, based on that experience alone, made them very protective of their investment and their boats and their jobs in the fishing industry. So there are still approximately a thousand Vietnamese, at least as of a couple days ago, that remain trapped on their boats up these canals that are clogged with other sunken boats, who wouldn't leave. And you can see how their culture trained them to be very clinging to their boats because they didn't want to lose them.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Professor May.

Prof. MAY: You're welcome.

NEARY: Fred May is a professor of emergency management at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, and he joined us by phone from his office there.

John Sorensen, just one last question. As we look at some of the things we've heard, we've heard about a variety of situations: somebody who evacuated from a dangerous fire area, tornadoes. What is the most important thing that nationally we need to be looking at in terms of evacuation plans now?

Mr. SORENSEN: Well, I think it's clear that the priorities are on our large urban areas. We know we can evacuate smaller, more rural communities, but it's a real wild card when you talk about Washington, DC, New York City, Miami, San Francisco and other major population centers, whether or not there is the resources and just simply the time to get people out if needed.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us.

John Sorensen is a distinguished researcher at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Oakridge, Tennessee.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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