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What has America learned since Hurricane Katrina? Researchers evaluate city evacuation plans

Hurricane Katrina. Evacuation planning in America’s 50 largest cities has improved only marginally since Hurricane Katrina, according to a unique study. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Study evaluates 50 largest US cities – finds minor improvements in evacuation planning.

Evacuation planners rarely considered the needs of carless and vulnerable populations before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. These vulnerable populations include low-income people, the elderly or young people with special needs, or tourists without a car on vacation. After the storm, transportation planners called for a new focus on evacuation planning to meet the unique needs of these people.

So what has America learned since Hurricane Katrina? Not enough, according to a unique study by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) that shows there have been only modest improvements when it comes to evacuation planning in America’s 50 largest cities. Researchers noted a lack of preparation, particularly to evacuate people without access to cars and vulnerable populations.

Composite Preparedness Score US cities

Red = Weak (0-3 points) Yellow = Moderate (4-7 points) Green/Olive = Strong (8-10 points) Gray = N/A (cities without publicly available evacuation plans). Photo credit: Florida Atlantic University

The study is based on data extracted from plans collected and analyzed in the years following Hurricane Katrina and more recently in the mid 1920’s (before the hurricane hit).

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” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>COVID-19 pandemic). Researchers also introduce an Evacuation Preparedness Rating of five dimensions identified as best practices in evacuation planning for vulnerable populations: special needs registries; specialized transportation plans for individuals with specific needs; pick-up location plan; multimodal evacuation plan; and pedestrian evacuation plan.

The 50 cities were scored based on the Composite Evacuation Preparedness Rating System that includes four designations: weak, 0–4 points; moderate, 5–7 points; strong, 8–10 points; and N/A, plans that were not reviewed.  

Published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, the results of the study, showed that only seven cities had strong plans, including Charlotte, North Carolina; Cleveland, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; Miami, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; New York, New York; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The researchers note that these plans should be utilized as a model for other cities. Twenty cities achieved a moderate rating, six cities had a weak rating and 17 plans were not available or do not exist. Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis are among the cities with plans not found.

Evacuation Plans Table

Availability of plans for 50 of the largest cities in the U.S. Credit: Florida Atlantic University

“While it is promising that more cities are developing evacuation plans, overall, it remains disheartening that not every city was able to learn the lessons of not being prepared, especially for carless and vulnerable populations, as showcased to the nation during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” said John L. Renne, Ph.D., senior author and professor and director, Center for Urban & Environmental Solutions (CUES) in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, who conducted the study with co-author Estefania Mayorga, a graduate of the master’s program in Urban and Regional Planning at FAU who assisted Renne on this project as part of her graduate research assistantship as a student.

The overall goal of this study was to develop a way to compare plans, across cities and over time, to work toward standardizing an approach for evaluating evacuation plans for carless and vulnerable populations across the U.S.

The Evacuation Preparedness Rating System served as a tool to allow consistent and uniform rating to test for minimum standards in all cities across the nation. Moreover, the tracking of plans over time illuminates which cities are improving and allows for a national snapshot that creates more accountability to highlight which cities are prepared and which are not. 

“In answer to the question we posed in our paper, ‘what has America learned since Hurricane Katrina?’ – the answer based on our findings is clearly: NOT ENOUGH,” said Renne. “Many cities that have strong plans, including Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans, and New York are coastal cities that have experienced strong hurricanes in the past. This study lends support to the theory that cities do not develop strong evacuation plans, ones that accommodate the needs of all people, unless they have already experienced a major disaster or are under a threat.” 

Reference: “What has America learned Since Hurricane Katrina? Evaluating evacuation plans for carless and vulnerable populations in 50 large cities across the United States” by John L.Renne and Estefania Mayorga, 13 August 2022, International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
DOI: 10.1016/j.ijdrr.2022.103226


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