Other cities have planned for, and survived, worse

Disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, terrorism, contaminated drinking water, snowstorms – bedevil American cities with alarming frequency.

Yet communities that have withstood catastrophe are sometimes the best prepared. They learn from their mistakes.

Perennial battering by hurricanes has made Florida officials acutely aware of the need to plan for the worst. Miami-Dade County, in particular, gets high marks from the emergency preparedness community.

In 2004, the state instituted its Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan which established a leadership structure from the governor on down to local officials with detailed responsibilities. Their duties revolve around risk assessment, preparation, response and recovery.

When hurricanes approach, South Florida responds in region-wide fashion. Evacuating Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million people – particularly the elderly and the impaired – tops the evacuation agenda. The region’s emergency management, law enforcement, shelter providers and public information networks are mobilized.

Gov. Rick Scott is the point man for major evacuations. A state coordinating officer is also deputized with the power to activate county emergency operations centers and shelters. The officer can also order contra-flow, or “reverse-laning,” to speed traffic from evacuation zones.

Miami-Dade’s transit agency manages dozens of emergency bus pick-up sites each marked with 3-foot tall signs with instructions in three languages (English, Spanish and Creole). Evacuees are brought to two dozen Red Cross evacuation centers.

“Florida’s evacuation planning, coordination and communication is very good,” said Tom Sanchez, an evacuation and disaster response expert at Virginia Tech. “They deal with it all the time. That experience is what really gets you ready. What you do in places that don’t get hit regularly, that’s the challenge.”

Georgia and Atlanta officials last week struggled to explain how they were caught with their pants down as a snowstorm approached then wreaked region-wide havoc.

The Georgia Emergency Management Agency has a “snow and ice” plan, published last year in response to the 2011 ice storm that shut down Atlanta for a week. The plan offers broad recommendations for better planning, coordination and communication. But it has few specific recommendations for dealing with traffic, for example.

Gov. Nathan Deal, over the course of the week, blamed big rig trucks for blocking interstates and highways and fueling gridlock. GEMA’s plan includes no rules for corralling truck traffic during a storm. And no agency last week took responsibility for stopping trucks from entering metro Atlanta.

“Clearly, the trucks that got sideways obviously created a problem, but we’re not the 1.5 million people on the road at the same time,” said Ed Crowell, president of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association which represents 1,100 companies. About 60,000 trucks roll through the region daily, he added, maybe 10 percent of all traffic.

“A whole lot of trucking companies made the decision to avoid the area, to slow down shipments and get out of town before they got backed up,” Crowell said.

As for reversing lanes, as Florida does, that would “be highly unlikely,” in metro Atlanta, GEMA spokesman Ken Davis said. “We do it for coastal evacuations for hurricanes along Interstate 16, but it’s a whole different topography in the metro area. And the manpower requirements would be tremendous.”

New Orleans, surprisingly, gets good marks for traffic control during a disaster. Hurricane Katrina will forever be known for images of low-income residents without cars desperate for help. The city’s evacuation plan failed them.

But New Orleans gets high marks for evacuating everybody else. Hurricanes Georges (1998) and Ivan (2004) became practice runs for getting people out of town fast. State officials opened southbound highway lanes to northbound evacuees, channeling hundreds of thousands of people away from on-coming storms.

Daniel Hess, an evacuation expert at the University of Buffalo, said that tactic probably wouldn’t have worked in Atlanta last Tuesday, given the region’s level of suburb-to-suburb commuting. Confused, hurried drivers might have made matters worse.

“I don’t know that you could do that on the fly in Atlanta,” Hess said. “You need a lot of policing for that.”

Hess and others suggested driving bans, or staggering times for drivers to hit the roads, a traffic measure known as metering. That would allow salt and sand trucks to treat roadways before cars filled them.

Gov. Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed both vowed next time to stagger school, business and government departures during a snowstorm. And they also promised, again, to learn from Atlanta’s latest snowy debacle.

“There’s a need to actually plan and envision the possibility that this could happen,” said Brian Wolshon, a professor of transportation at Louisiana State University. “It doesn’t come during an emergency. By then, the problems have already started. And they’re only going to get worse.”

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