Lessons Learned From an 'Almost' Evacuation

In August 2007, Hurricane Dean gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico and aimed for the southern coast of Texas. Although the hurricane later changed course and made landfall in Mexico, authorities predicted that Texas could still be hit hard by heavy rains, storm surge, and, possibly, coastal flooding. Before Dean made landfall, President George W. Bush issued an emergency declaration for 32 Texas counties; the presidential order triggered the greatest mobilization of emergency resources in the state’s history. Since Hurricane Dean skirted Texas, however, no mass-evacuation order of similar magnitude has been necessary.

Despite the lack of an actual evacuation order, many if not quite all of the state’s emergency managers have put their evacuation plans into effect at least once – and have learned several valuable lessons from the potential shortcomings in those plans. The 2007 Hurricane Dean After-Action Report, developed by the State of Texas Governor’s Division of Emergency Management – and available on Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov) – details the mobilization efforts carried out throughout the responding regions.

In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, emergency managers took steps to safely evacuate a large number of area residents (and some visitors, of course). Responders were deployed to staging areas, and receiving points, to await the evacuation order – which, unfortunately, did not include enough of the supplies and other resources necessary (e.g., food and sleeping facilities) to support a team of responders during an extended deployment. Because responders stayed longer than expected while waiting for the evacuation order, the supplies at the receiving areas and staging points were severely taxed. The after-action report mentioned above recommends that emergency managers stock receiving areas and staging points in quantities sufficient to accommodate extended deployments, especially when responders’ schedules are unpredictable.

Dogs, Cats, Building Materials & Other Impedimenta

As the evacuation plans proceeded, the Texas Department of Transportation assured emergency managers in the Rio Grande Valley District’s Disaster Center that all construction materials on planned evacuation routes would be removed. As it turned out, although much of the construction materials were in fact cleared, especially in the Alamo area, not all routes were cleared. To resolve a repetition of this problem the after-action report recommends that the State Department of Transportation continually review infrastructure improvements to quickly identify and clear construction-related impediments to traffic flow in times of an actual or potential disaster. The report also recommends that all road work should stop – preferably at least 72 hours before the onset of a severe storm that could require evacuation.

Emergency managers in the Rio Grande Valley area also recognized that they might encounter difficulties convincing some citizens to leave their homes. One major hurdle to mass evacuations is that many people are not willing to leave their pets behind. For that reason, the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006 (also available on LLIS.gov), requires states and local communities to include accommodations for pets and service animals in their evacuation plans.

To meet that requirement, public information campaigns in the Rio Grande Valley area encouraged pet owners to help prepare for disasters by purchasing the muzzles and/or carriers needed to transport the pets safely – but emergency managers still expected, reasonably enough, to have to provide many of those necessities. However, when preparing for Hurricane Dean, planners belatedly realized that most if not all local pet stores did not have enough of those items, and other pet supplies, needed to accommodate a mass evacuation. Had an evacuation been required, therefore, the lack of available ways to safely transport pets would have caused difficulties for the emergency responders themselves. To remedy this problem, the after-action report recommends that emergency managers collaborate with private-sector and/or non-profit pet advocacy groups before a disaster strikes to arrange for muzzles, pet carriers, and other supplies to be distributed at the pre-determined evacuation hubs.

Although no actual evacuation was necessary in the Rio Grande Valley during Hurricane Dean, the emergency managers documented their evacuation preparations in the 2007 Hurricane Dean After-Action Report so that other jurisdictions could learn from their experiences. The report discusses those and other lessons in further detail.

For additional information about the After-Action Report and many other mass-evacuation documents, log into LLIS.gov.

Jennifer Smither

Jennifer Smither is the outreach and operations manager for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov), the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national online network of lessons learned, best practices, and innovativeeas for the U.S. homeland security and emergency management communities. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Florida State University.



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