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Gridlock Shows Need for New Evacuation Plans

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was harshly criticized in the days following Hurricane Katrina. Tens of thousands of victims of the storm were stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome, and the death toll from Katrina has climbed over 1,000 people. In the days leading up to Hurricane Rita this past week, President Bush moved quickly and very publicly to emphasize that his administration was working hard to prepare for the storm. In his radio address yesterday, the president detailed the effort.

(Soundbite of radio address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Over the past week federal, state and local governments have been closely coordinating their efforts for Hurricane Rita. The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA prepositioned food, water, ice and emergency response teams and helped with the evacuations in Texas and Louisiana.

HANSEN: John Copenhaver was southeast regional director for FEMA from 1997 to 2001 under former President Clinton. Mr. Copenhaver is now president of the Global Partnership for Preparedness, and he joins us by phone.

Welcome.

Mr. JOHN COPENHAVER (President, Global Partnership for Preparedness): Thank you.

HANSEN: What are your impressions of how the federal government prepared for Hurricane Rita?

Mr. COPENHAVER: Well, clearly there was a significant level of preparation. I think that the degree of resources and assets that were prepositioned before Hurricane Rita made landfall--truly impressive. I have to say, though, that that was not unanticipated after the problems that the government had with Katrina. I wouldn't call it an overreaction but perhaps a tendency to be a little overprepared maybe.

HANSEN: But the Texans clearly heeded those warnings. They got out of town, but they didn't get very far before there was gridlock on the highway. I mean, how serious a problem is that for any high density area that needs to evacuate?

Mr. COPENHAVER: Liane, it's a serious problem, and it's a problem that is going to require us to take another look at the issues. I think that we've seen this before. In the hours leading up to the landfall of Hurricane Floyd back in 1999, many people will remember that Hurricane Floyd went from south to north along the Atlantic coastline and pushed a huge bulge of evacuees in front of it, coming up Interstate 95. Many of those evacuees tried to go west along the westbound interstates, Interstate 10, 20 and particularly Interstate 26 between Charleston and Columbia, and just literally locked up those interstates. So there were horror stories of evacuees being on the road for hours and hours at a time. I think we're going to have to look at our evacuation planning because clearly there are things that we're going to have to be able to do better.

HANSEN: Yeah. What might be a solution, do you think? Staggered evacuations, maybe evacuating according to priority like low-lying areas first?

Mr. COPENHAVER: Honestly, I think that first we're going to have to take a closer look at what people really do. We're not evacuating statistics; we're evacuating people. There's a phenomenon in emergency management known as shadow evacuations, where people see their neighbors or people across the street or in another subdivision evacuating, and even though they themselves are not under any kind of an evacuation notice, they fear for the safety of their families, and they get in their cars and they leave as well. So those are called shadow evacuations, and they are people that are not anticipated to be a part of the evacuation. But it happens. We're going to have to go back and look at human nature when we look at evacuation planning.

HANSEN: There was warning, a few days, for Hurricane Rita. But what about, you know, with no notice, this would be really difficult. Can a city actually prepare for an instant evacuation?

Mr. COPENHAVER: I don't believe that we are adequately prepared for an instantaneous evacuation. I think that that is a problem that we don't yet have the answer to, and we're going to have to find one.

HANSEN: And now talk a little bit about police resources. I mean, they were stretched both in the New Orleans and the Texas evacuations. Is bringing in the Army, the military, as soon as possible a viable solution to that problem?

Mr. COPENHAVER: I would be very careful about that kind of a solution. Under the old FEMA, the FEMA that I was a part of back in the late 1990s, the military did function to support civilian authorities. The federal response plan called for cooperation of the United States military at the direction of civilian authorities to accomplish those goals. I think that concept is still the concept that should be used. Now I personally don't think that calling in the military to have them accomplish evacuations under their own jurisdiction, not at the direction of civilian authorities, is going to be the right thing to do.

HANSEN: Now, of course, Hurricane Rita did not, at least as of this point, cause the kind of damage that it might have had it hit Galveston, Texas, and Houston directly. What are your concerns the next time, I mean, about people particularly not heeding evacuation orders the way that they did this time?

Mr. COPENHAVER: That's a concern. We saw that after Hurricane Floyd again because people spend so many hours on interstates trying to get away when, in fact, the storm didn't make landfall until it hit North Carolina. So from Florida to Georgia to South Carolina, the damage from Hurricane Floyd was minimal. People got out of their homes, in their cars, stuck on interstates for hours, and many of them were interviewed saying, `I'm not going to do this again.' Well, in a real situation such as Katrina, you have to do it. So we're just going to have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to do this better.

HANSEN: And a few weeks left in hurricane season.

Mr. COPENHAVER: In fact, there is a considerable amount of time left in this year's hurricane season, and let's keep our fingers crossed.

HANSEN: John Copenhaver is the president and CEO of the Disaster Recovery Institute and is former southeast regional director for FEMA.

Thanks a lot for your time.

Mr. COPENHAVER: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.