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Katrina's Wake-Up Call For New York?

Could a disaster like Hurricane Katrina happen in New York City? If it did, could New Yorkers find the transportation they need to move to safety?

“If we don't view Katrina as a wake-up call in New York City and surrounding areas, then we are fooling ourselves," Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, chairman of the committee that oversees the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, declared (as reported in Newsday and the Daily News ), when he released a report this month critical of the MTA’s evacuation plans.

Although hurricanes are less common in New York than in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, the city is still quite vulnerable. Major hurricanes have hit the metro area in 1938, 1954 and 1999. In 1821, a hurricane raised the tide 13 feet in an hour in the city. A hurricane expert at Queens College, Nicholas Coch, says that a major hurricane in the city is “inevitable.”

The key failure in New Orleans was the failure of the city to evacuate residents of its low-lying areas. Louisiana’s emergency operations plan, adopted in 2000, recommended that cities use public transportation to evacuate residents if necessary. Yet as the Houston Chronicle reported, the city of New Orleans emergency management plan suggested that people develop their own way to get out. But many poor residents living in the lowest lying areas of New Orleans do not have a car and were thus left stranded at the same time that the city left 550 buses sitting idle.

A second key failure in New Orleans was not ordering evacuation sooner. Mayor Ray Nagin issued the order at 10 a.m. Sunday for a storm expected to hit Monday morning. That left inadequate time for the evacuation to proceed, especially for people in hospitals and other special needs populations.

New York is in many ways less vulnerable to a hurricane than was New Orleans. While much of New Orleans is below sea level and thus relies on levees and pumps to stay dry, New York is above sea level. Even if inundated, the city will drain dry in a few days. Thus, even in the worse case, residents could return home in a matter of days instead of months.

On the other hand, there are a whole lot more people to evacuate in New York than in New Orleans. But unlike the plan in New Orleans, the New York emergency evacuation plan emphasizes the use of public transportation. Residents of low-lying areas in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx would be urged to use trains and buses to move to friends or relatives on higher ground or to go to one of 20 “reception” centers around the city – many without any parking whatsoever. City officials would then channel evacuees to up to 300 shelters.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that, “We have ways to call and get MTA buses to take residents who likely wouldn’t have cars or money for transportation.” With most outlying areas of the city lacking direct subway service, buses would presumably be the primary mode for evacuees. How buses would be deployed, where they would run or how quickly residents could get to shelters is not clear from the emergency plan on the city’s Web site, however.

New York’s plan explicitly urges residents not to use their automobiles. The plan recognizes that roads will be jammed and the trip will be very long. If you do drive, the plan advises that you make sure you have a full tank of gas.

Would there be time to evacuate? That depends on when the order is issued and how quickly residents pack up and go. Bloomberg has made clear that he would use forcible means to evacuate residents if necessary. Whether he or another mayor would order a disruptive evacuation 36 or more hours in advance – when no one knows whether the storm will divert from the city – cannot be known in advance.

Could it happen here? The city seems better prepared and better positioned to handle a major hurricane than was New Orleans. If fully deployed, city buses could move tens of thousands of people over a 36 hour evacuation period. But the human response –- when a mayor issues the order to evacuate, whether residents would voluntary leave their homes -– is as key an unknown in New York as it was in New Orleans.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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