Charlotte’s emergency plan is a reality check, wake up call, or perhaps a bucket of cold water on the topic of evacuation and our safety in numbers.
Researchers have called most city approaches to these topics “fantasy plans” because they rely on private cars when up to 56% of urbanites don’t own one, citizen self-sufficiency which doesn’t exist, services on evacuation routes which don’t exist, public transit which is rarely mentioned, or “potentially life threatening” measures such as having all roads lead out (contra flow).
On the topic of evacuation, the latest, best advice appears to be in a document issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1984.
Charlotte posted a document called an “Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook” by John Sorensen and Barbara Vogt. It’s a great series of well-researched lessons for emergency plan writers.
Here is the Cliff notes version:
Many people refuse to comply with evacuation orders. We need long warnings for some events such as flooding and shorter warnings for nuclear or chemical events. Emergency managers need to use multiple means of communication — door-to-door, loud speakers, TV, and radio announcements. People need to hear from multiple authorities — the mayor, fire chief, police chief, Red Cross and others, perhaps. People need specifics and definitions of “shelter…evacuation” and such.
We know much less than we would like about human behaviour and how to influence it (just ask anyone who has been married or has raised children). Assumptions about all this are based on engineering not on actual human behaviour.
When it comes to evacuation, some people come home from work and then leave, others go to find family members at work and then leave, and still others may meet in a neutral place and then leave.
There are shadow evacuations of people near the danger zone. On average 26% of people get out. There are spontaneous evacuations of people who weren’t even asked to leave. People who do leave will return for their pets or to tend to livestock.
Panic is limited and so is anti-social behaviour. Worrisome, though, is the fact that people can become complacent or fatalistic about regular threats. The phenomenon of hurricane parties, which are common in the Southeastern USA, proves this.
Newton’s first law of motion is that a body in motion has a tendency to stay in motion. The Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook notes that people with a household emergency plan are more likely to obey an evacuation order. But in this case, Newton was wrong about a body at rest staying at rest. Evacuees tend to want to return home as soon as possible.
One observation in the Guidebook is chilling in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on urban safety and the 8,000 or so pages of emergency plans and related research papers I’ve read.
Cities are spending on public education programs, children’s school displays, glossy brochures with pictures of kids and dogs as if preparedness were a fun ride at the fair. The authors of the Guidebook say there’s “…no conclusive evidence regarding whether or not preparedness programs…actually makes a significant difference… [A] good pre-emergency information program will increase response although the amount cannot be estimated. …[A] poor program will not likely make a great overall difference. …[E]ffects will drop off over time…”
My intuition is that the authors are right. This raises the question as to why we are spending so much money on emergency plans?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good plans out there. Auckland, NZ, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a natural disaster. Kansas City, MS, has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets including food and shelter. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities. But most plans leave much to be desired, as the Interactive Emergency Evacuation Guidebook implies.
It’s a shame that this excellent document has been removed from the Charlotte city website. It offered hard lessons — maybe too hard for comfort.