Resilience Natural Disasters

Since Hurricane Katrina, only seven cities have adopted strong disaster preparedness plans

“Many cities that have strong plans, including Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans, and New York are coastal cities that have experienced strong hurricanes in the past.”
Traffic flows north as Gulf Coast residents seek refuge from Hurricane Katrina.
In this photo, taken Aug 28, 2005, cars are seen leaving Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as residents evacuate the region before Hurricane Katrina strikes. The Associated Press

Story at a glance

  • The devastating toll of Hurricane Katrina on cities like New Oreans prompted some to re-analyze their own emergency evacuation plans.

  • However, new data show that just seven of the nation’s 50 largest cities have strong plans in place, while some have no evacuation plans at all.

  • As climate change continues to exacerbate extreme weather events, more regions will need to better prepare for such natural disasters.  

Hurricane Katrina made landfall 17 years ago this month, bringing widespread devastation to residents of Gulf Coast states Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and is considered among the greatest natural disasters to ever hit the United States. 

However, new research from a team at Florida Atlantic University shows that within the past two decades, the country has not learned nearly enough from the catastrophe and that “only marginal improvements have occurred with respect to evacuation planning in America’s 50 largest cities.”

Analyses show the cities with the strongest evacuation plans are Charlotte, N.C.; Cleveland; Jacksonville, Fla.; Miami; New Orleans; New York City; and Philadelphia. Researchers stressed other cities should look to these as models for disaster evacuations.

“While it is promising that more cities are developing evacuation plans, overall, it remains disheartening that not every city was able to learn the lessons of not being prepared, especially for carless and vulnerable populations, as showcased to the nation during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” said study co-author John L. Renne, professor and director at the Center for Urban & Environmental Solutions at the university in a statement.

The findings spell concern for residents as extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change are expected to become more prevalent in the future.

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To understand whether any changes were made in protocols throughout the 2010s and to assess the efficacy of these changes, researchers compared evacuation plans in the nation’s 50 largest cities throughout this time period with those recorded a decade earlier. 

Carless and vulnerable populations included those with low incomes, the elderly, young individuals with specific needs, or tourists on vacation without a car.

Investigators also devised an evacuation preparedness rating system based on the following metrics: special needs registries; specialized transportation plans for individuals with specific needs; pick-up location plans; multimodal evacuation plans; and pedestrian evacuation plans.

Data were assessed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and cities were scored based on a composite evacuation preparedness rating system: weak, 0–4 points; moderate, 5–7 points; strong, 8–10 points; and N/A, plans that were not reviewed.  

A total of 17 cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, didn’t make plans available to researchers or did not have plans at all. 

The six cities with the weakest ratings were Colorado Springs, Colo.; Honolulu; El Paso, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Memphis, Tenn.; and Indianapolis. 

“Many cities that have strong plans, including Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans, and New York are coastal cities that have experienced strong hurricanes in the past,” Renne explained.

“This study lends support to the theory that cities do not develop strong evacuation plans, ones that accommodate the needs of all people, unless they have already experienced a major disaster or are under a threat.” 

Because the data were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers note the crisis may have led to updated emergency management plans for certain cities that are not reflected in the current study.