Report: Few U.S. Cities Prepared for Evacuation Procedures

Updated: 10-13-2006 01:29:17 PM

USA Today

WASHINGTON -- Most of the nation's largest cities got flunking grades on a report card released today that measures how well each city can evacuate its population before or after a major disaster.

Ten urban areas received grades of "B" or "C," six got a "D," and 20 got an "F" in the report by the American Highway Users Alliance. Only Kansas City, Mo., got an "A."

Among those that failed the test: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Atlanta and Boston.

"The potential for terrorist attacks and last year's New Orleans flood destruction underscore the necessity for providing sufficient evacuation capacity from the nation's urban areas," according to the alliance, a non-profit organization that promotes highway safety and construction to reduce congestion.

The report follows the release in June of a review by the Homeland Security Department that examines the ability of all 56 states and territories and 75 urban areas to respond to catastrophes. "Significant weaknesses in evacuation planning are an area of profound concern," that review concluded.

The alliance's report blames several factors for cities' poor grades, including the number of major highways out of a city and whether the city is partially hemmed in by water or mountains. Other factors included how well internal roads are laid out; how densely populated the city is; and the percentage of residents who have cars.

Kansas City scored high because it's not densely populated, there are no geographical barriers on any side of the city and it has a good intra-city road system, said Greg Cohen, president of the highway users alliance. New York City ranked low because it's so densely populated, congested and surrounded by water, and it has a higher percentage than most cities of residents who rely on public transportation.

In Atlanta, planning an evacuation is complicated by the fact that two major highways converge in the middle of the city, says Alfred Moore, director of the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency. He says the city has a plan on paper, but "have we exercised the plan yet? Nope. Have we trained on the plan? Nope."

Among the recommendations made by the alliance:

*Building new highways leading out of cities, where possible.

*Putting timed lights and gates on highway entrance ramps to limit congestion during evacuations and keep traffic flowing.

*Developing more ways to get information to drivers about alternate routes and traffic conditions.

*Creating government programs to increase car ownership among low-income people.

Justin DeMello, director of Denver's Office of Emergency Management, said evacuation planning is the most difficult part of any emergency-preparedness effort.

"There are just so many factors that come into play," he said. "And there are no easy solutions."