Homeland Security Doesn’t Extend to Evacuation Plans

Here we are in hurricane season. It has been a year of extreme weather, so I thought I’d have a look at what plans FEMA, an agency of  the Department of Homeland Security, has made to evacuate large metropolitan areas like Miami and Houston, since I was also looking into evacuating for nuclear power plant disasters. As I noted yesterday, all I could find on FEMA’s site was the suggestion to keep your gas tanks full and limit your family to taking just one of its cars.

Apparently, they have [still] forgotten that trains run in the US. After Katrina,

“Amtrak ran an evacuation train from Avondale Yard in New Orleans to Lafayette on September 3. New Orleans Regional Transit Administration buses transported passengers from the city to the yard. Once aboard the trains, meals-ready-to-eat, water, and medical and security personnel were available. The train had capacity for 600 evacuees, but only carried 97, who were then bussed by Houston Metro Transit to Texas. The same afternoon, federal officials called off further Amtrak evacuation train operations, as Texas shelters were at capacity and officials were unable to utilize Amtrak to send evacuees elsewhere. Amtrak has kept two trainsets (one Superliner, one Horizon) in Lafayette to be used on an as-needed basis, while bus and aircraft evacuations of New Orleans continue. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for being slow to accept Amtrak’s initial offer of assistance last week. ‘When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims – far more efficiently than buses – FEMA dragged its feet,’ she said.”

This story by from the September 2, 2005 Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS) by Sylvian Metz suggests that trains could have been better used:

“Amtrak will begin evacuating stranded New Orleans residents tonight. If all goes accordingly, the first train should pull out of New Orleans about midnight. . .

The train will run around the clock, with a second train to join the operation in the next couple of days. . . . Amtrak will use freight lines owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Canadian National/Illinois Central Railroad. . . .

Amtrak President David Gunn came up with the idea two days ago, according to Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith, former chairman of Amtrak. Smith then presented that plan to U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Bill Gotshall, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.”

Let’s look at the progress of the idea into action. Was using trains FEMA’s idea? No. It came from Amtrak to the mayor of Meridian, MS, to a US senator, to the chief of staff for another senator. This does not seem very efficient.

And why on earth would they use the train to take people only as far as Lafayette, LA, 145 miles out of New Orleans, and then bus them an additional 220 miles to Houston? Why were officials “unable to utilize Amtrak to send evacuees elsewhere”?

Worse still,

“A challenge was faced with staging evacuees for passenger rail services offered by Amtrak, due to the lack of communication, coordination, and prior planning among local, State, and Federal officials. Assistance offered by Amtrak prior to the landfall of Hurricane Katrina was not accepted and resulted in a train with 900 seats (7 locomotives and 20 cars) leaving prior to the storm.”

Does any of this make any sense?

One of the recommendations made during the Congressional hearings following Katrina by the Director of Homeland Security for New Orleans was to

task AMTRAK to develop and maintain the capability to evacuate 5,000 special needs citizens from any metropolitan area in the case of a declared National Emergency.

Sounds reasonable, but was this idea acted upon? Well it was, when the topic was hot, and on September 1, 2008, prior to Hurricane Gustav 2,022 people were transported by train from New Orleans to Memphis. But by 2010, things had changed. On June 10, 2010, in testimony to Congress regarding the BP oil spill, Mark A. Cooper, Director of Louisiana’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Office asked that

FEMA . . . re-initiate its contract with Amtrak to provide a means of evacuation for at-risk populations from the New Orleans metropolitan area. FEMA informed the state, literally mere weeks ago, that it had determined to cancel this contract. In light of the current oil spill, it is glaringly apparent that all modes of evacuation will be needed should a storm threaten the coast.

I haven’t found yet whether FEMA is working again with Amtrak, or if a Houston Feasibility Study by Innovative Emergency Management (IEM) that showed that with 72 hours notice, 3,600 people could be taken out of that city to Dallas or 6,300 to a transfer point has prompted any action.

Of course, these numbers are tiny compared to the number of people that would need to be evacuated. Amtrak only runs 34 trains nationwide. Still, because trains can’t solve the whole of the problem doesn’t mean it makes sense not to utilize them at all, especially for those who would be most stressed by long bus trips in bumper to bumper traffic.

There’s a lot more to having a secure homeland than keeping terrorists off planes. That is, after all, a theoretical risk that would affect far fewer people than would the next major natural disaster and the sooner-or-later major manmade one.



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