Emergency Evacuation Plans in Upstate New York Inadequate, Says Expert

Lack of adequate preparation puts those without personal vehicles at risk

Release Date: September 22, 2008 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the case of an extreme event or disaster, many areas in upstate New York are ill prepared for a large-scale evacuation of people who don't own personal vehicles, says University at Buffalo transportation and evacuation expert Daniel B. Hess, Ph.D.

Hess has evaluated the written emergency plans of the four major cities in upstate New York, as well as upstate areas near nuclear plants. He points out that the "carless" include a vast number of poor, elderly and disabled people.

An associate professor of urban and regional planning in the UB School of Architecture and Planning, Hess has conducted extensive research on evacuation planning and is studying the ability of central upstate cities to perform a complete evacuation during an emergency.

"This is a potentially very dangerous situation," says Hess, "because the percentage of households without vehicles in upstate New York cities meets or exceeds the percentage of such homes in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck."

He points out that 28 percent of households in Albany have no vehicle access. Thirty-one percent of Buffalonians are without cars; 27 percent of people living in Syracuse are without cars and 25 percent of Rochester residents do not have cars.

"Nevertheless," Hess says, "with the exception of sites near nuclear power plants, many upstate places have inadequate written plans for mass evacuation when it comes to this particular population," he says.

Although hurricanes are rare in this region, Hess notes that it is necessary to plan for possible evacuation in case of severe storms, flooding, fires, chemical spills, nuclear accidents and other man-made disasters (including terror events), as well as possible earthquakes, because the region is crisscrossed with geological fault lines.

In their study of upstate New York emergency plans, published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Hess and co-researcher Julie C. Gotham, identified the strengths and weaknesses of the written plans' evacuation methods.

They recommend that planners direct their efforts to include wide population samples, best practices for carless evacuations and use of multiple methods of transportation.

Hess has spent years studying the devastating aftermath from Hurricane Katrina; this week he returned from New Orleans, where he studied the emergency planning of acute-care hospitals during Hurricane Gustav to discover what was learned since Katrina.

His research is funded by MCEER, a national center of excellence, headquartered at UB, dedicated to the discovery and development of new knowledge, tools and technologies that equip communities to become more disaster resilient in the face of earthquakes and other extreme events.

Extreme-event planning and mitigation is a strategic research strength at UB. UB faculty members have expertise in earthquake engineering, the design of resilient communities, disaster response and design of sensors to detect dangerous biological agents.

Hess says that it is clear, especially in the face of the successful evacuation of New Orleans prior to Hurricane Gustav, that emergency planners must employ a variety of methods to move people to safety. In particular he cites the use of high capacity vehicles -- public transit, private buses and vans, long-distance train -- and even walk-out plans for downtowns.

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