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.


About Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, Tornadoes, Evacuation Plans — and Car Pooling

Here’s a what-if for you. What if there had been an accident at Browns Ferry in North Alabama when it lost power after its power sources were knocked out during the F5 April 27, 2011 tornado? That could have happened. Initially, the Tennessee Valley Authority “indicated everything functioned as it should”; however, Pam Sohn reported in the Chattanooga Times Free Press that

“documents the utility is required to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission show reactor operators became distracted while manually operating cooling water flow to the Unit 1 reactor and water began boiling off faster than it was being replaced.

“Additionally, a valve failed, a diesel-driven fire pump failed, the diesel-driven generator for the security station failed, the warning sirens were lost, power to the chemical lab was lost, and an emergency diesel generator keeping cool water flowing to one of three reactors shut down because of voltage fluctuations caused by a fluid leak after a brass fitting broke.”

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., now ranks Alabama first in the nation for severe tornadoes. In other words, what happened April 27 at Browns Ferry could happen again.

A tornado doesn’t even have to be involved, of course. No natural disaster was involved when Browns Ferry came close to being the site of the first ever meltdown:

“Because of a fire that rendered most of the safety systems useless the TVA-owned plant came very close to being the site of the first major nuclear accident in 1974. Ultimately catastrophe was avoided by the tiny Athens Fire Department using common sense and dousing the first with water, even as the nuclear specialists at the plant rebuffed the local firefighters for six hours as they attempted to put the fire out with various chemicals.” [Tommy Stevenson, Tuscaloosa News]

You should have a look at Browns Ferry 2011. Really, you should; it has such lovely pictures of autumn leaves and lilies and butterflies. This is a calendar/brochure for people who live within a 10-mile radius of the plant. It has an evacuation map and driving directions. People with special needs aren’t forgotten: they can return a postage-paid card and their names will be placed on a list!  The problem is, these instructions wouldn’t have been much use on April 27, 2011. Consider this:

How will people be alerted of an accident? Use of the Prompt Notification System sirens, radio, and television. On April 27 there were dozens of tornadoes in North Alabama. By the time the late afternoon wave came through, electricity was off, and siren towers blown down.

If somehow the alert gets through — enough sirens are still functional and people have battery radios on — and the call is to evacuate, what are they supposed to do? “Use your own transportation, or, if possible, ride with a neighbor.” Carpooling is the evacuation strategy for a meltdown! And what if you don’t have a car? I guess this is the scenario anticipated here: “If you have unique needs or experience problems, call 211 for assistance.”

Now then, after the tornadoes, there would have been some problems with these instructions. Gas pumps wouldn’t be working, telephones wouldn’t be working, traffic lights would be out, and roads would be blocked by live wires, fallen trees, and other debris.

Let’s face it. With a car you might get out; without one, you don’t stand a chance. And this seems to be FEMA policy in general. These are its instructions for preparing for evacuations:

“Keep a full tank of gas in your car if an evacuation seems likely. Gas stations may be closed during emergencies and unable to pump gas during power outages. Plan to take one car per family to reduce congestion and delay. Gather your disaster supplies kit. Make transportation arrangements with friends or your local government if you do not own a car.”

There is, in other words, no Federal evacuation plan. You are on your own. And that worked out so well for so many before and after Hurricane Katrina, and for Texans during 2005’s Hurricane Rita:

“Evacuees fought traffic Wednesday afternoon through mid-day Friday, moving only a fraction of the normal distance expected.[14] Average travel times to Dallas were 24–36 hours, travel times to Austin were 12–18 hours and travel times to San Antonio were 10–16 hours, depending on the point of departure in Houston. [29] Many motorists ran out of gas or experienced breakdowns in temperatures that neared 100 °F (38 °C). Traffic volumes did not ease for nearly 48 hours as more than three million residents evacuated the area in advance of the storm.[14] This was the largest evacuation in U.S. history.”

Glad to know we’ve learned from experience. And remember to keep your gas tank full at all times since once “an evacuation seems likely” it will be too late. And if you don’t have a car, well, why don’t you? Maybe someone will give you a ride. Yeah, right.