Last weekend Hurricane Irene caused an unprecedented shutdown of Metro New York’s transit (including all air travel, MTA, NJT, LIRR, Metro-North, and Amtrak). Given the assurance of wind damage to catenary wire, the probability of toppled trains on exposed elevated alignments, and the assurance of flooding – it takes all-day pumps just to keep New York’s subways from flooding every day – a shutdown was the only prudent course of action. New York was fortunate both that Irene was weaker than expected and that a large-scale evacuation was mostly unnecessary. Though there were very vulnerable spaces, such as Lower Manhattan and the Rockaways, relative safety could be had simply by traveling to the wild uplands of, say, midtown Manhattan. The New York Times deserves much credit for featuring transit news and advice prominently throughout the storm, but most other communities spoke only to drivers’ needs.
Much more after the jump…
Where New York was fortunate, the New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina was infamously unfortunate. Its 100,000 transit-dependent people (27% of New Orleans households!) were ordered to evacuate of their own accord, with no provision or direction on how to do so. Famous aerial shots depicted hundreds of flooded and ruined buses, while maxed-out contraflow highways made ‘evacuation’ on I-10 a sub-5 mph crawl. Those stuck in New Orleans in the first few days after Katrina endured conditions rivaled only by the poorest nations on earth, and they starkly revealed the fundamentally unjust result of a society built around personal cars. When I lived in Britain, more than once my colleagues marveled that a society could order an evacuation with such hand-waving as, “Y’all better get out!”
I’d like this post and the comments to be a discussion of how transit can best contribute to disaster planning, both here and elsewhere. Though Katrina showed us the worst of both individualism (traffic, looting, etc..) and government ineptitude (FEMA, etc…), it is clear to me that societies owe each other the means to collectively evacuate themselves irrespective of economic class, and that those choosing to be carless should be provided a means of evacuation.
There are significant barriers to transit-based evacuations. Trains, though they have the highest capacity, are generally more vulnerable than highway infrastructure, as their rights-of-way were usually carved out along lowlands and waterways in 19th century. Bus evacuations are much more likely but have their own problems, such as storage of personal effects (people generally evacuate with lots of stuff) and the role of paid labor vs. volunteer driving and all the attendant liability issues there.
But perhaps the most difficult problems are trust and chaos. In disasters survivalism instinctively appears. Social contracts can quickly dissolve, leading to self-defeating self interest, textbook examples of how game theory explains disaster sociology. The urge toward self-reliance is very alluring; there is no other time I would want to be less beholden to government than when its failure to deliver could mean my death.
Hurricanes give lots of warning, a luxury our quake and volcano-prone region wouldn’t have. A major Rainier eruption could bury our rails and make the valleys impassable. A major quake on the Seattle Fault would damage or destroy up to 80 of our bridges and up to 1,000 of our old masonry buildings. In a major disaster, then, our region should plan less for evacuation and more towards preemptive preparedness and adaptation. But the structural question – our collective responsibility in disasters – is one we need to rehearse over and over until we know exactly what we owe each other.
(For further reading, check out the 2008 report by the Transportation Research Board (TRB), or for those of you who don’t like reading 300+ pages, here’s a simple but well-written article by Michael Schwartz, an academic who has made disaster transit a central research theme of his.)