FINAL REPORT: Evacuation Planning

by John Contestabile, Assistant Program Manager for Homeland Protection, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab; summarized by John F. Morton

DomPrep has surveyed the DomPrep40 and DomPrep Journal readers for their opinions on the nationwide progress of evacuation planning.   In 2006, when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) evaluated and reviewed the Gulf Coast states’ catastrophic-hurricane evacuation plans, they found a number of areas in need of improvement – in the multi-jurisdictionalentification of weaknesses in specific plan elements, for example. We wondered:  Is that still the case?

DomPrep40 member John Contestabile, the assistant program manager for homeland protection at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, has been among those who want to find out and drafted this survey.  As the former director for engineering and emergency services at the Maryland Department of Transportation, he has for many years had a vital professional as well as personal interest in getting the evacuation details right.

“Evacuation plans are an essential component of almost every major disaster,” Contestabile pointed out as he prepared our survey. But “inevitably,” he continued, citing numerous after-action reviews, “they seem to go badly.” At all levels of response, and responsibility, the federal, state, and local jurisdictions of government are required to develop effective evacuation plans and to have those plans in place before, not after, disaster strikes.  This is not an easy task, he acknowledged. A major evacuation “is a multi-jurisdictional/multi-agency drill.” Also, because more grant funding has been allocated in recent years to interoperable communications “and to the acquisition of other ‘gear’ – not in itself a bad thing, to be sure – one wonders … how many jurisdictions are where they need to be on comprehensive evacuation planning.”

Because so many hurricanes hit various areas of Florida each and every year, that state is one that seems to be reasonably proficient in planning for, and carrying out, major evacuations. “But,” Contestabile has asked, “could this be more the result of practice than planning? And how many other jurisdictions [throughout the country] can say they have that same level of experience needed to do evacuation planning properly?”

Key Findings:  In general, DPJ readers were more skeptical of the progress of evacuation planning than were the DP40.  Evacuation planning may be progressing in many states, but still seems oriented to vehicular paradigms.  Nonetheless, it is somewhat surprising that transportation agencies are not more widely represented as lead agencies in the development of evacuation plans. Moreover, at least some state plans may need to “mature” by, among other things, expanding the “special categories” of likely evacuees that should be included in the plans – the state’s (or community’s) transit-dependent and prison populations, for example.

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