We Need to Get Evacuations Right

Hurricane Katrina hit a year ago this month, but we're still not where we need to be on the planning front, say DOT and DHS.

MORE planning is needed to accommodate special needs populations in a major hurricane evacuation, according to a recent report to Congress by DOT and DHS that examined preparedness for such a mass evacuation. The full report, available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/reports/hurricanevacuation/, is much broader in scope and indicates evacuation of all coastal residents, not just disabled ones, is not yet adequately planned despite the problems encountered during 2005's hurricanes.

The report's Public Communication and Preparedness section asserts that many state and local plans do not contain adequate provisions for informing residents and visitors about who has to evacuate, when, and why. "Insufficient information is often given for people to understand the differences between hurricane watches and warnings, voluntary and mandatory evacuations, and other facts that people need to make better decisions on whether and when to evacuate," it says, adding that during an evacuation, evacuees typically don't have access to the Internet or TV, yet these are two of the primary means of providing pre-evacuation information. Systems to provide information to evacuees and emergency managers during the course of evacuations on the status of traffic, shelters, fuel, and other services along evacuation routes "should be improved and deployed," the agencies recommend.

Current evacuation plans often define "special needs" populations too narrowly to address everyone who needs transportation during an evacuation, DOT and DHS concluded. Some plans include only people in institutions as having special needs and do not include people with special needs who live independently, even though they require assistance to evacuate. Also, major institutions such as prisons and hospitals are responsible for evacuating their facilities, but their evacuation plans often aren't coordinated with the emergency management agency.

All is not lost: DOT said it is preparing a primer on evacuating various special needs populations that will include essential information and technical assistance for state and local agencies and others responsible for evacuating and sheltering people with various special needs. DOT also is working with the American Red Cross and the Humane Society of the United States on major evacuation issues and with DHS on a comprehensive search and rescue plan that integrates rescue missions with transportation and evacuation.

This column appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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