Barriers To Planning: Lessons From Katrina

Evacuating people after Hurricane Katrina revealed chronic shortcomings of local and regional evacuation planning. The barriers that hindered efforts in New Orleans apply not only to evacuation planning, but to planning in general.

Read Time: 7 minutes

March 26, 2007, 7:00 AM PDT

By Thomas W. Sanchez, Marc Brenman

Photo: Thomas W. SanchezPhoto: Marc BrenmanEvacuation planning at the local and regional levels needs to overcome a number of significant barriers, many of which also exist in everyday planning. Recent events -- including the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the devastating hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region during 2005 -- have highlighted the importance of planning and, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the importance of transportation mobility in response to such events.

A Cautionary Tale

The case of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina represents the chronic neglect of warnings about inevitable disaster, the lack of attention devoted to clearly foreseeable risks, and the absence of the planning to deal with them. One particular example is the lack of foresight in evacuation planning for people in New Orleans who did not own cars or who could not afford gas. Some might argue that this was a completely unique set of circumstances given the catastrophic nature of the hurricane combined with the high risk of levee failure and concentration of low income persons in New Orleans. However, some South Florida cities that have extensive experience with disasters ranging from fire to hurricanes actually monitor car ownership statistics and have emergency plans that feature sending public transportation to neighborhoods with low car ownership rates.

One way regions could easily address this issue is by using information from public transportation route planning (which often takes into account mobility levels) to identify the locations of residents likely to need assistance during evacuations. Related to these planning efforts should be the coordination and use of existing infrastructure, such as fleets of school buses. Consequently, this would result in a need for legal liability safe harbors that are common barriers to interagency sharing of resources. This is an example of where evacuation planning and everyday planning intersect.

It should be noted that natural disaster mitigation is not the same as natural disaster prevention. It will be interesting to see if Hurricane Katrina finally teaches us that such "natural" disasters are often cautionary tales-about our failure to address the mix of long-term environmental, economic, social, and political circumstances that accentuate our vulnerability to these events. Improved techniques are needed to better identify hazardous areas and the people living in them. We also need to create incentives and livelihood opportunities elsewhere for the poor and endangered communities in hazardous areas, and then implement those incentives. Addressing specific disaster threats only when they occur also often fails to address other pressures that increase vulnerability to disasters-such as the lack of livelihood opportunities that drive the poor to settle in hazard-prone areas. As seen in the Hurricane Katrina experience, a lack of physical mobility freezes people in place geographically, socially, and economically.

Barriers To Planning

To overcome local and regional barriers to evacuation planning (and planning in general), several challenging aspects need to be dealt with. These aspects relate to bureaucracies, priorities, and modes of planning which may not appear to be specific to local and regional evacuation planning, however, they are fundamental challenges that were highlighted during the Hurricane Katrina disaster:

  • Jurisdictional boundaries as obstacles to cooperation This is reflected in "my county, your city, your state, your federal government" approaches to regional problems. In a social equity context, the obstacles to racial integration presented by school district boundaries are a well-known problem. In a transportation context, metropolitan planning organizations are supposed to cross jurisdictional boundaries. In a disaster-planning context, infrastructure acquired by individual jurisdictions -- such as electronic communications devices and rescue equipment -- are not necessarily compatible. But disasters, terrorist events, mobility issues, and equity issues naturally cross artificial governmental lines.
  • Planning neglect That fact that nearly half of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. and nearly 70 percent of its MPOs fail to address evacuation planning constitutes planning neglect. The federal government should impose mandates upon cities to have minimum standards in evacuation plans. These plans should include accessibility in evacuating all residents, including the carless and those with special mobility needs.
  • Institutional racism Institutional racism is the concept that underlying systems and policies keep whites and people of color unequal. There are certain areas of local policy where racism becomes prominent and visible, including policing, zoning, and housing. Municipal and other government policies and programs can either promote equality, tolerance, and justice, or (consciously or not) promote division and inequality and engender the belief that specific racial and ethnic groups are second-class citizens. With respect to transportation, under-funded transit systems -- predominately used by people of color -- may constitute institutional racism. Although New Orleans was 70 percent African American pre-Katrina, a disproportionate amount of those stranded in the city were people of color. Public transit and evacuation planning policies have to overcome institutional racism.
  • The misapprehension of risk, failures in communicating risk, and using this misapprehension for political purposes This can be a function of a lack of transparency and ineffective public involvement processes. Underlying this is also corruption, which undercuts good potential results of public social policy. Risk is the hazard level combined with the likelihood of the hazard leading to an accident combined with the hazard exposure or duration. Risk is also described as the probability of a mishap times the likely severity of a mishap, which is often difficult to communicate in the midst of crisis.
  • The dangers of inflexibility Territorialism can be one aspect of inflexibility; however, in terms of evacuation planning this can mean too much reliance on a particular method of evacuation. For example, despite the successes of the New Orleans contra-flow system, not having alternatives resulted in nearly 30,000 stranded within the city. While some people would have certainly chosen to stay even if rides out of town were provided, many had no choice but to remain due to a plan that was too inflexible. Like all planning, evacuation planning needs redundancy, flexibility, and resiliency. If a disaster made particular corridors inaccessible for any reason, the evacuation plan should be flexible enough to reroute people in another direction or on another mode. Such was the case in Manhattan on September 11th when ferry service provided an alternative to the subway service which was knocked out due to the disaster.

We should promote dialogue, community empowerment, and political will to increase adaptive capacity to respond to disasters through purposeful and unified action. The will to action must reach a critical mass and, when disaster strikes, become movement. There are dangerous political and civil rights implications in involuntary movement, such as forced evacuation. Must people be allowed to suffer in place? Is that their right in a democracy? Policy makers might invest in long-term plans that reduce or mitigate threats, generate a timely warning system to reduce potential costs when a disaster strikes, and plan short-term relief responses while working at longer-term rehabilitation. But these efforts will have a greater impact when implemented across sectors and at national, regional, and local scales, with the sensitivities discussed. Disasters and terrorism happen. When they do, the nature of our social contract is such that they should not be allowed to adversely affect one group much more than another. Basic humanitarianism dictates rescue without regard to race or ethnicity. Why then should the preparations for disaster be predicated on any other basis?

Thomas W. Sanchez is Director, Associate Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning, and Research Fellow in the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech's Alexandria Center. He is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. He holds a PhD in City Planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology. His book on transportation equity (co-authored with Marc Brenman) Moving to Equity: Transportation Equity for the 21st Century, will be published by the American Planning Association in 2007.

Marc Brenman is Executive Director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission, a State agency headquartered in Olympia. He began in 2004. The Commission has jurisdiction over employment, housing, public accommodations, and financial services civil rights in the State of Washington. From 1995 to 2004, Mr. Brenman was Senior Policy Advisor for Civil Rights in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. He has worked in civil rights since 1973, primarily for the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.

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