Road to safety: lessons from Hurricane Katrina

n December 2006, the US Government Accountability Office published a report, Transportation Disadvantaged Populations: Actions Needed to Clarify Responsibilities and Increase Preparedness for Evacuations, following evidence many of the 1,300 residents of New Orleans who were killed in the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in 2004 did not own a vehicle and were unable to drive themselves to safe ground.

This raised questions about how well state and local governments responsible for disaster planning have integrated 'transportation-disadvantaged' populations into their planning. The conclusions drawn will hopefully go a long way to improving such responses in the future.

While there is no official definition of a transport-disadvantaged population, the term is generally taken to apply to those people who do not have access to their own vehicle and who, in the event of a state ordered evacuation, would therefore not be able to leave the affected area without assistance from local or national transport services.

Among these people are likely to be elderly and disabled residents, individuals from low-income groups and homeless people. These people may also have difficulty in accessing available public networks unless additional assistance can be provided.

In the US, transport-disadvantaged people constitute a significant proportion of the population. In the top 10 car-less cities in the US, non-car owners make up between 29 and 56 per cent of the population. The 2000 US census identified 12 per cent of its citizens as being aged over 65, 12 per cent as living below the poverty line and 23 per cent as having a disability. However, because a single person can fall into more than one of these categories, this has presented difficulties in identifying accurate numbers of people that need to be accounted for.

Identifying the vulnerable

The report highlights the difficulties of identifying transport-disadvantaged people and of providing transport that meets the special needs they may have. In June 2006, the US Department for Homeland Security's Nationwide Plan Review reported that of emergency plans from all 50 states and 75 of the largest urban areas, only around 10 per cent of states of 12 per cent of urban areas were adequately considering the needs of these populations. Most plans focused exclusively on highway evacuation by personal vehicle. Often, this seems to be due to a lack of awareness and limited understanding of transport-disadvantaged populations by many state and local governments.

One example is an emergency management official who claimed that few of his city's residents would require transportation assistance in contrast, the 2000 census had identified that 16.5 per cent of the local population did not own a car.

While federal law insists that emergency planning exercises involve special needs populations, this definition does not currently cover the transport-disadvantaged. The report recommends a federal definition of 'transport-disadvantaged' be established to help gather information.

There is no formal register of such groups or individuals, but local government may hold information that would help. For example, records may be held of people who use special needs transport to meet hospital appointments or make use of transport provided to aid work schemes in low-income neighbourhoods. Many people defined as transport-disadvantaged only need standard buses to transport them from their homes to places where they can feed into existing public transport systems. However, the Department of Transport's catastrophic hurricane evacuation plan has reported that few evacuation plans recognise the potential for intercity buses, ferries, trains and aeroplanes.

Providing suitable transport

Transport-disadvantaged people may have more specialised transport needs such as buses and vans with wheelchair access, or with room to accommodate important life-support equipment such as dialysis machines. There may be specific requirements demanded of the driver, and additional staff may be needed to help passengers on to such vehicles and to give them medical care throughout the journey. Untrained staff in transport companies whose vehicles could be used may not be willing to take on such roles for fear of liability claims that may result.

Because of this, emergency plans not only need to identify suitable vehicles but also suitable staff. Emergency planning strategy may need to ensure that drivers are adequately trained to deal with passengers' special needs. Such forward planning brings its own problems: information on people's health needs may not be available to emergency planning agencies due to privacy concerns.

Volunteers working with services may be unwilling to provide guidance on the transportation needs of the people they regularly deliver to as they may consider this as a breach of privacy. To some extent this is a catch-22 situation: without an existing register or central registration agency, it is virtually impossible to create one.

In most areas, the report claims that the needs of disabled residents are being severely underestimated in evacuation planning and it stresses the importance of fostering links with organisations such as Meals on Wheels and Operation Brother's Keeper, a Red Cross programme that matches people in a community who do not have a personal vehicle with those who do, and including them in emergency planning.

In addition, only two of the five cities visited by the report writers had involved social transport providers and other groups in planning efforts.

Another barrier to successful evacuation is the question of who is responsible for reimbursing private transport companies. Companies may not be willing to help in a disaster unless they know in advance that someone is going to compensate them for the use of their time and resources.

Such legal barriers can be addressed by pre-agreed arrangements between contractors and emergency planners for the use of vehicles and drivers in an emergency.

Need for guidance

In general, local and state governments claim to lack guidance on where to go for help with planning the evacuation of transport-disadvantaged populations. About a third of the respondents surveyed for the report said they would like additional, better co-ordinated guidance.

Department of Homeland Security grants are available to allow state and local governments to plan, train and conduct exercises for the evacuation of transportation-disadvantaged populations. However, only two in five of the cities visited in the report had taken advantage of this.

Planning ahead

The report did highlight a number of successes in the period since Hurricane Katrina. In May 2006, the Department of Homeland Security made several changes to its national response plan to include disasters that may evolve or mature to catastrophic magnitude. For the 2006 hurricane season, the Department of Transport assisted the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in providing evacuation assistance, clarified command and control by identifying key federal contacts and worked with the states to finalise plans for pre-positioning of federal assets and commodities in the region. In collaboration with the Department of Security, the Department of Transport has provided more support to Louisiana, including working with the state to identify those people who could not evacuate on their own and establishing an inter-agency transportation management unit to co-ordinate the routing of buses; entering into contracts to provide transport by bus, rail and air; and providing transportation from state and local pre-established collection points to shelters, rail sites or air transportation sites. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transport planned to help Louisiana to evacuate the 96,000 people who could not leave by their own means if the state ordered an evacuation.

The Government Accountability Office report recommends that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a department within the Department of Homeland Security, should be the single federal agency for leading and co-ordinating evacuation when local and state governments are overwhelmed, and that it needs to clarify the federal agencies' roles and responsibilities in providing evacuation assistance.

It recommends the department uses its authority under various grant programmes to require that all local governments plan, train and exercise for the evacuation of transport-disadvantaged populations and to develop additional preparedness guidance and technical assistance, which needs to include sharing information via its online portal. It also recommends that the Department of Transport encourages its grant recipients and stakeholders to share information that would assist emergency management and transportation officials in identifying, locating and determining the needs of transport-disadvantaged populations.

The Department of Homeland Security has already partly implemented some of the recommendations, including improving information on its Lessons Learning Information Sharing portal, although the Government Accountability Office believes that further improvements are still needed.

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