Group grades urban areas for ease of mass evacuation
Some city leaders say other disaster response options need to be better funded.
WASHINGTON -- Worried about evacuating your city in an emergency?
Move to Kansas City.
Making a familiar case for more roads and using the newer argument of homeland security, a trade association for highway builders and the automotive industry recently gave most of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas failing grades for how well they would evacuate their populations in a disaster.
Twenty of 37 urban areas received an F from the American Highways Users Alliance. The list included usual suspects such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington.
Only Kansas City got an A.
The Bush administration and Congress have emphasized mass-evacuation planning since Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of much of New Orleans. The Department of Homeland Security this summer found such plans inadequate in about 90 percent of the nation's top 75 cities and "an area of profound concern." Pushed by Congress, DHS will award 1.3 billion in homeland security grants next year, partly on the basis of plan improvement.
Washington-area governments recently gave a million-dollar contract to a private firm to coordinate regional evacuation plans, joining many urban areas nationwide, and Congress has ordered Pennsylvania and West Virginia to take part in planning for an exodus of the capital region.
Factors taken into account
The alliance's grades were based on three factors: each city's internal congestion, percentage of automobile ownership and percentage of vehicles that local highways could move in 12 hours. It recommended national standards, better planning and more roads and car ownership.
The federal government is pushing coastal states to do some of that. The Transportation Department reviewed evacuation plans for five Gulf Coast states. DHS prepared to move 141,000 people by bus, train or plane from New Orleans if necessary, while arguing with Louisiana about sheltering 150,000 others, setting collection points and identifying vulnerable groups such as the sick and elderly.
Outside hurricane country and high-threat cities such as New York and Washington, however, experts are hard-pressed to envision scenarios in which officials would want to evacuate an entire metropolitan area in 12 hours.
Evacuation not always best
The best response to a radiological "dirty" bomb or chemical release might be to take cover or at most to evacuate people from a specific plume area. In a doomsday scenario involving a nuclear bomb, planners say, it cannot be assumed that local authorities would have credible warning, time to act and confidence that they would not be sending people into harm's way before an event -- or that they would be able to respond effectively afterward.
Milwaukee has an international port on Lake Michigan and is home to 12 Fortune 500 companies, so it takes a catastrophic threat seriously. But it faces bigger risks from tornadoes and ice storms, said the city's emergency coordinator, Daniel Alexander, and more urgent needs such as improving radio systems so first responders and nearby cities can talk in a disaster.
"There is an inordinate amount of attention paid to one threat or vulnerability that is not applicable to all areas of the country," Alexander said. "The money, time and energy that's being devoted to regional evacuation planning, while important in some parts of the country, there are other more pressing issues. One of them is interoperable communications."
David Riggleman, spokesman for Las Vegas, agreed. "We are not quite sure what the scenario would be," he said. "We're in the middle of the Mojave Desert. For us to evacuate 1.8 million people, where are we going to evacuate them to?"