Last February, during a heavy snowstorm, thousands of uptown workers all tried to head home at once and found themselves trapped for hours in one of the worst regional traffic jams on record.
Is there anything to keep that from happening again during an evacuation following the explosion of a dirty bomb planted by terrorists, or a chemical or biological attack, or a strike on one of our nuclear plants? This spring, local officials unveiled a center city evacuation plan that is supposed to be the answer to that question. The plan, which divides uptown into four quadrants and sends evacuees in four different pre-planned directions, includes signs uptown and thousands of maps that have been distributed to those who live and work in the center city. According to the plan, it should take just three hours to empty uptown in the event of a terrorist attack.
But like most evacuation plans across the country, it contains huge holes.
For starters, the plan covers only the area a mile around uptown. With the exception of some areas of the county that fall into the unrelated nuclear evacuation zone around the McGuire Nuclear Station, there is no evacuation plan for the rest of the county. There's also nothing to guarantee that those outside the one-mile center city evacuation zone won't hear about an attack or other disaster uptown on TV or radio and attempt to flee too, clogging roads and trapping center city workers in the disaster zone.
In fact, said Russell Henk, a hurricane evacuation expert with the Texas Transportation Institute, that scenario is the most likely one.
"People are just very dubious as to the effectiveness of phased evacuations because of that issue of self-preservation," said Henk. "Is everybody outside that one-mile radius going to stay put while everyone else evacuates? I would question that seriously. In these kinds of evacuations, it turns into an 'every man for himself' scenario where people, by their nature, are going to try to protect themselves and their loved ones."
When asked what would prevent this scenario from happening here during an uptown evacuation, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Captain Chuck Adkins said local officials are depending on the education they've provided -- they've presented the plan to thousands, they say -- to quell a panic. Families and individuals who've taken the time to develop and study their own emergency evacuation plans are less likely to panic and start a stampede that traps others in a disaster zone, he said. (For information on developing a personal evacuation plan, visit www.fema.gov.)
The center city evacuation plan asks people to stick to an evacuation route once they've chosen it, and to stay in their cars even if traffic isn't moving rather than abandoning them, which can cause massive gridlock.
Government and business officials would also use a special radio communications system to decide who should flee first, so that workers won't all leave at once the way they did during the snowstorm. He says most workers were headed in just two directions -- north and south -- during the snowstorm, and that getting them headed in four directions would cut the traffic jam down.
But again, this best-case scenario would happen only if people do as they are told. Unfortunately, the few studies done on evacuation behavior suggest evacuees would do just the opposite; that is, they'd try to reach children or family members or flee when they've been told to stay put. [See sidebar for details on evacuation-related studies.]
Both the nuclear and the center city plans rely on emergency personnel to clear broken-down and abandoned cars and keep an access lane open to reach those who need medical help and keep traffic moving. But studies show that emergency personnel, as well as school teachers, are likely to flee in large numbers as well if they believe their families are in danger.
Worst of all, if a disaster involves a nuclear, chemical or biological release, evacuees still may not be able to move out of harm's way quickly enough -- even if the evacuation plans go flawlessly.
According to a FEMA analysis, it would take only a half-hour to two hours for a radiation release to travel five miles from a nuclear plant, and from one to four hours for it to spread 10 miles. The analysis assumes only an accidental release of small quantities, and doesn't take into account terrorist attacks.
There also is no way to tell which way the wind will blow, experts say, and evacuees could actually head in the same direction as the deadly substance they are fleeing.
"You can absorb enough radiation in a short period of time that you experience radiation poisoning which can lead to death in a few days or a few weeks," said Edwin Lyman, of the Nuclear Control Institute, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, that examines risks of nuclear terrorism. "That kind of exposure is only 5 to 10 miles from the site. Within two hours, radiation exposure will be well beyond 10 miles. Can they evacuate the 10-mile zone in two hours? Notification alone might take two hours."