LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: President Bush promised, right after Hurricane Katrina, to review the emergency plans of every state and big city in the country. He called it a national security priority. That review has just begun. Some cities are further along than others. Boston is one place that's done a lot to update its plans. But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, there are still gaps in the city's efforts to protect its residents.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
It's hard to miss the new signs posted on every major thoroughfare in downtown Boston. They say evacuation route, and have big white arrows pointing out of town. The city has also sent every household the Disaster Preparedness Guide, with evacuation tips and other advice. And soon Boston will be able to call up to 60,000 households an hour with emergency instructions. Mayor Thomas Menino is pretty proud.
Mayor THOMAS MENINO (Boston): I think we have a good plan, I really do. I was talking to some other mayors who are still struggling with their plan. They haven't got their brochures out to the residents; they haven't got evacuation routes; they're still in the planning process, you know.
FESSLER: But Menino is also a realist. He knows just how much government can do.
Mayor MENINO: Are we prepared? We're prepared as any city can be. But until you implement the plan, you don't know how good until the plan is implemented.
FESSLER: Hurricane Katrina was a sober lesson for public officials. Images of desperate residents waiving from rooftops, and bodies abandoned by the roadside have emergency planners scrambling as they try to figure out how best to protect residents. But the challenges for any city are huge.
Mr. ROB PARK (Disabled Employee, Boston): It has the ability to tilt the space.
FESSLER: Rob Park shows with the flick of a switch how he manipulates his electric wheelchair to get him through a typical day. Park has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. He also works in downtown Boston, goes to college, and commutes from nearby Salem. Park cherishes his independence, but wonders what will happen in a disaster.
Mr. PARK: Because my electric wheelchair is like my legs. So if you don't charge my chair, you take away my ability to get around.
FESSLER: If the power goes, he asks, how will he get from his second floor office to the street? And then what would he do? Even the closest subway isn't accessible. Because he doesn't live in Boston, he hasn't been told of the city's plans. Park, who works for the non-profit Boston Center for Independent Living, says lots of people he knows would have trouble in a crisis.
Mr. PARK: I have friends that are non-verbal and can't tell people without a letter board or a piece of technology to speak for them. How do you communicate with that person?
FESSLER: Park's boss, Bill Henning, estimates that about 10 percent of Boston's half million residents have some disability that would cause problems in a disaster. City officials say they're planning to work with these groups to address those issues. Henning thinks people also have to prepare themselves.
Mr. BILL HENNING (Boston Center for Independent Living): It might be ensuring that you have backup caretakers in case there's an evacuation, extra supply of medicines, writing down all your prescriptions, what they are, so you can give it to people, back up emergency equipment, that's very important.
FESSLER: In fact, Boston is in the process of awarding grants to 20 community groups to get such messages across and to figure out who needs special help; where do they live; what kind of assistance do they need; and how can officials tell a diverse community, whether to evacuate or stay where they are.
In Boston's Chinatown, several women are trying to learn English at the Asian American Civic Association.
(Soundbite of English Class)
Beverly Wing is co-director of the Chinatown Coalition. She says about 40 percent of the Asian Americans here don't speak English, and many are confused about what to do if there's an emergency. Her group has applied for one of the city grants.
Ms. BEVERLY WING (Co-Director, Chinatown Coalition): We do know that here in the community we have a significant number of seniors. I think that will be a challenge for any emergency planning process, is how to communicate with them quickly and efficiently, and how to move them out of the city safely.
FESSLER: The city notes that it's translated emergency brochures into several languages, although for the most part, it will be up to groups like the Chinatown coalition to distribute them. Boston officials have also identified about 70 neighborhood centers where residents can go for temporary shelter or to get a lift out of the area. But Homeland Security director, Carlo Boccia says he's still trying to identify some place like the New Orleans Superdome in case there are large numbers of residents who either can't or won't evacuate.
Mr. CARLO BOCCIA (Director, Homeland Security): We're looking at how we can use major facilities to care for mass evacuees onsite, but we're looking at it in terms of what didn't happen in Katrina. We're looking the fact that, can these centers support that type of population for weeks on end.
FESSLER: And some say there's a good chance many Bostonians won't be able to evacuate, especially if there's little warning, as in a terrorist attack. Dutch Leonard sits in his office at Harvard University, where he teaches Crisis Management, and points to a city map. He notes that Boston is largely surrounded by water with few ways in and out. And that's bound to cause problems.
Mr. DUTCH LEONARD (Dutch Leonard, Professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University): Because all of those people have to move across a relatively small number of corridors. And, presumably, we'd all be trying to do it at more or less the same time.
FESSLER: Leonard notes that even during a normal rush hour streets here are jammed. He says an evacuation could quickly lead to gridlock, despite the best efforts of officials to keep the traffic flowing.
We decide to go for a drive and check out some potential problem areas. We head to one of the major roads in the city's evacuation plan, Route 93, which heads north, out of the city.
Mr. LEONARD: You can see the traffic ahead of us, there's a long line of cars, but they're moving relatively rapidly.
FESSLER: That quickly changes, though, as several feeder roads begin to merge onto the main highway.
Mr. LEONARD: Now we're starting to see a backup here, and I don't know...
FESSLER: And soon, there are long lines of slow moving taillights ahead of us. Leonard points to huge office buildings at either side of the road, which could empty all at once in an emergency.
As we head further north, there are more apartments and houses. Leonard says on a normal day, these areas start to draw some of the traffic off the highway.
Mr. LEONARD: But in an evacuation, all of these communities are going to trying to release people, people are going to be trying to get out of these communities onto the road like the one that we're on here. And we're now in very much stop and go traffic on the major interstate. We're not at a dead stop on a major interstate. And this is a relatively light winter rush hour.
FESSLER: And it's also a good weather day; no snow or rain. Leonard says emergency evacuation plans have to assume the worst. Boston officials say they'll have alternative routes if there are problems, and that a mass evacuation would be a last resort. But there's another big challenge for the city; getting the public on board.
Despite the mailings and publicity, a random sampling of people in downtown Boston found that many hadn't even heard of the city's new evacuation plans. And some who had, like Pearl Jones, were confused after reading their emergency guides.
Ms. PEARL JONES: I says, where am I supposed to go, after I looked at it, you know? And I'm right on Galvin(ph) Boulevard, near the Ne-ponset(ph), and all of that, so I wouldn't know where to go.
FESSLER: Homeland Security Director, Carlo Boccia, says Boston officials are well aware there's still work to be done: educating the public, training emergency personnel, and working out the kinks in the plan.
Mr. BOCCIA: The plan remains a living plan. It's always, it always continue to evolve. You'll never get to the point where you have the plan, it's completed and you put it on the shelf. Because that's the day it becomes outdated.
FESSLER: But, he says, the city is confident it's off to a good start, and in a lot better shape than many urban areas.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: You can learn more about preparing for an emergency and read a confession by our reporter about her own lack of planning at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.