Every hurricane season, news reports divide the country’s coast into two camps. You’ve got the leavers, who brave miles-long traffic jams as they make for higher ground. And the stayers, defiantly boarding up windows, stockpiling provisions, and kicking back on their couches—that’s how their parents and grandparents did it, anyway.
Like most dichotomies, it’s a false one. It ignores a third group: Those who want out and can’t. As Hurricane Florence bears down on the mid-Atlantic coast, emergency managers are painfully aware that not everyone in the region has their own cars, nor can drive them. In Wilmington, North Carolina, where forecasts call for up to 100 mph wind gusts and 30 inches of rain, more than 8 percent of households don’t have a car. In Charleston, where storm surges might hit two to four feet, the number is between 7 and 10 percent. It’s the case for about 15 percent of households in Norfolk, Virginia, where coastal water levels could climb one to three feet above normal.
In good weather, lack of access to car can mean lack of access to jobs and education. But it can be a matter of life and death when local governments assume residents can get themselves out of harm’s way by hitting the road. As New Orleans’ Times-Picayune reported about the area’s emergency management plans in in July 2005, a month before Hurricane Katrina killed at least 1,800 people: “City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.”
So for local governments, which are generally in charge of creating their own hurricane contingency plans, this problem should go well beyond traffic management. How can a place ready enough buses, trains, and planes to move its most vulnerable out? How does it even find those who need help?
“When you’re trying to plan for vulnerable populations, it’s really a local sort of activity,” says John Renne, who studies urban planning and disaster management at Florida Atlantic University. “It’s really hard to do that from a federal or state level. It’s not something you can do on a moment’s notice. These sorts of things take time.”
The issue, he says, is that many local governments feel ill equipped to do that work. In one recent paper, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, Renne interviewed emergency managers in the UK and in five major American cities, and found even those in big metros like Miami, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans were “realistic about the shortcomings of their plans.”
While national agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide technical assistance and funding, and state governments often invest resources into robust emergency planning, Renne has found that many local governments don’t know to take advantage. Meanwhile, scientists project that storms are only getting worse, with climate change creating slower-moving monstrosities that will dump more rain. And the carless population is only set to grow in the coming years, as more than 70 million baby boomers age out of driving.
The good news is that many places have worked to address the issue. One strategy: Not really moving anyone farther than necessary. New York City’s plans, for example, include relocating residents of low-lying areas to the ample higher ground around the five boroughs. “If you have to put people in a bus and drive them 160 miles, it means you’re only going to get 100 people out of each bus or train,” says Larry Gould, a principal transportation planner with the firm NelsonNygaard who worked for years on the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s emergency contingency plans. “In New York, the same train or bus can recycle four or five times.”
Unlike New York, most of New Orleans is at or below sea level, which means residents must get out. The Big Easy seems to have learned its lessons from Katrina, in which it failed to transport all 27 percent of its population without access to vehicles outside of the flood zone. Now, it plans to lean on a network of “evacuspots,” 17 locations scattered throughout the city, most in areas where high shares of the population depend on public transit. Since 2013, each has been marked, year-round, by a 13-foot metal statue of a stick man raising his hand. (Five spots are specially equipped to handle senior citizens.)
If a hurricane swings toward the city, the mayor would give the area 72 hours warning of a mandatory evacuation. Those without access to other forms of transport would be directed to these stick statues. There, 700 coach buses, each 50 feet long and pulled in from all over the South, would pick up residents (even those with pets) and transport them to either pre-arranged shelters or the airport. “We hope we can give people the confidence that they can be safe,” says Collin Arnold, who directs the city’s Office of Homeland Security. “Our message is: ‘We know it’s going to be stressful, but bear with us. We can get you out of town.’”
The city is also working on a point-to-point plan, which would take residents from institutions like nursing homes or schools directly to their own evacuation areas. Another thing states have learned from Katrina: At least five Gulf States have integrated nursing homes’ evacuation protocols into their own statewide emergency management plans.
Arnold says his department is constantly in touch with Louisiana’s state emergency managers, plus federal agencies. But the city has another funding stream going for it: Its carless evacuation plan is funded in part by Evacuteer.org, a non-profit organization devoted to recruiting and training volunteers who help residents check in and then get out of the city before an emergency. Many other places don’t have that extra money.
For now, the places in Florence’s path are bracing—and making do. In Wilmington, the region’s Wave Transit has teamed up with the county’s school bus operations department for emergency transportation. County officials also maintain a special needs registry, which it has used to contact those who may need more specialized help getting out of the area. Those who had not left the area by Wednesday evening were instructed to shelter in place. Now, the wait.