Q&A: U.S. Evacuation Plans, Post-Katrina The landfall of two powerful hurricanes on the Gulf Coast within weeks of one another led to one of the largest relocations in U.S. history. For analysis of that and future evacuations, we spoke with Joanne Nigg, who has studied disasters for more than 20 years.
NPR logo Q&A: U.S. Evacuation Plans, Post-Katrina

Q&A: U.S. Evacuation Plans, Post-Katrina

Evacuees reach a Texas aid station as they flee the destruction of Hurricane Rita. Paul Heltzel, NPR hide caption

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Paul Heltzel, NPR

A woman sits on the rear of her truck on a bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

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John Burnett, NPR

The landfall of two powerful hurricanes on the Gulf Coast prompted one of the largest relocations in U.S. history... and exposed key failings in the country's emergency system.

In New Orleans, the effort to remove residents from harm's way was faulted for providing little help to those without cars, and for neglecting many ailing or elderly citizens.

As Hurricane Rita approached, Texas moved swiftly to usher more than three million people from the Houston area. But critics say authorities waited far too long to permit outward-bound cars to use both sides of the interstates. Traffic bogged down and gasoline supplies dwindled as a result.

For an analysis of the evacuations and their lessons, NPR turned to Joanne Nigg, who has studied disaster risk and recovery for more than 20 years. From 1990 to 2001, Nigg headed the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware; she is currently a faculty member at the center.

Large-scale evacuations require the work of local, state and federal officials. What's the most difficult part of the process?

Two State Plans

The state of Louisiana issued evacuation maps as Katrina gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico:

The planning. Any evacuation plan is only as good as the process used to develop it. It needs to be integrated. Evacuating tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of people will fail unless it's done in an integrated process.

When Hurricane Rita threatened the Gulf Coast, Texas released its evacuation plan:

Houston was a wonderful example of a successful evacuation, and getting lots of people out of harm's way. But there wasn't really a regional approach in place.

But there is very little regional planning going on in this country. For instance, in Texas, residents followed the Houston mayor's call to evacuate. Gasoline trucks had to be sent out, just to give gas to stranded motorists and keep the flow of evacuees moving. But that was an improvised operation.

As Hurricane Katrina neared, the mayor of New Orleans said he was worried that if everyone in the city followed the order to evacuate, gridlock would result. How do you tell people in some parts of a city to leave, and tell others to wait?

You can't. In New Orleans, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the residents got out of the city before Katrina made landfall. That's still a success in evacuating people. But when the levees broke, and it became a true catastrophe that happened, the residents who stayed became the focus.

But there are alternatives to that kind of horizontal evacuation, where people leave a threatened area on highways. You can have a vertical evacuation, where people are sheltered on the upper floors of buildings temporarily.

In New Orleans, the Superdome was used as a "shelter of last resort" because of its structural integrity and elevation. But you still face the problem of transporting people, and giving them food, water, and services.

Many New Orleans residents said they didn't want to evacuate, and even in Texas people have said they might not leave the next time. Is there a danger of evacuation orders being ignored?

There are lots of reasons people didn't leave New Orleans. It wasn't that they just decided they wouldn't leave. Some who stayed had impaired mobility or were elderly; some didn't have transportation, or they stayed to be with friends or family. A major reason that the evacuation worked in Houston is that they brought in buses, all kinds of vehicles, to get people out any way they could.

People in New Orleans were told to bring a supply of three days of drinking water if they were going to the Superdome. If you don't have that, what do you do? Show up anyway? There were lots of things that probably kept people away.

Another thing at work is the higher number of people living by themselves. For the first time in our history, the number of people living alone has surpassed the number of people living with others. Not everyone is going to have a neighbor who'll check up on them. Especially in a very fast-onset flood, like after the levees broke.

The number of people that fled Katrina and Rita is the largest peacetime evacuation we've ever had. They were successful in that they got a lot of people out of harm's way. But that doesn't mean things couldn't have been better.

President Bush has talked about reorganizing the emergency system to give more responsibility to the military. Will that make the process more efficient?

I don't necessarily think it would be more efficient. With hurricanes, you have several days to plan. With an earthquake, you don't. What's more beneficial is to have a consistent process, and a plan, that would work in either case.

And the military, at least in the past, has not wanted to be part of those actions. They train soldiers for wartime. Peacetime disaster management is an entirely different task.

The National Guard can often help support the state government, in the recovery phase and in debris removal. In New Orleans, the military was also very useful in things such as making helicopter rescues possible. But in most disasters, they're just not needed.

In the recent cases, the greatest use of the military, to be honest, was to provide security.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita put new emphasis on emergency preparations on the East Coast. What are other areas that should consider updating their plans?

Los Angeles is going to revisit its planning process, and I'm sure the same is going on in the San Francisco Bay area. California and Florida have two of the most professional, and most exercised, emergency staffs.

California is divided into four or five regions, each with its own director. They coordinate with all the counties to form mutual aid agreements to help share resources when there's a disaster. They also coordinate well with their FEMA people. A lot of states don't.

There have also been some attempts to plan for earthquakes that might hit the central United States, on the New Madrid Fault zone. If something came along that matched the strength of the 1811-1812 earthquakes — or even smaller — they'd have major problems in several states.

The New Madrid Fault zone runs from Arkansas to Ohio, along the Mississippi River valley. Any magnitude 6.0 or larger earthquake in that zone would create damage over a much larger region than an earthquake in California, because of the geological conditions in the area. Any response or relief effort would be a challenge.

The Disaster Research Center, where you work, is one of the oldest groups to analyze disasters and responses to them. Many emergency planners are recommending people keep evacuation packages ready in case of emergency. Do you have one?

Me personally? I do. I have my water, food, weather radio, flashlights with extra batteries and seasonal clothes ready to go.

As a matter of fact, the DRC sent two research teams to monitor the Katrina recovery efforts. They were sent out with camping gear and food, prepared to camp out if lodging couldn't be found. And when Rita was nearing land, we were prepared to get them out.