How cities plan to rely on public transit in times of natural disasters
By Bruce Sussman
The Miami Beach Golf Club is nestled between Biscayne Bay to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
It is where people come to connect on the links under the Florida sun.
But it quickly becomes a link, in a transit powered evacuation plan, when Hurricanes threaten the Miami area.
That is exactly what happened in the fall of 2017 when Hurricane Irma roared ashore over Florida.
Typical Transit Busses, Special Routes
Miami’s Mayor ordered nearly 400,000 people to evacuate areas of the city that were most at risk from the rising storm surge that would accompany Hurricane Irma.
And that’s where the Miami Beach Golf Club comes in.
It is one of dozens of “Emergency Evacuation Route” pick-up sites where Miami-Dade Metrobuses stop to collect evacuees ahead of a hurricane. Other stops include sparkling condo towers, longstanding senior centers and strip malls.
“Buses and our Special Transportation Service (STS, our paratransit service) were used to transport people from designated evacuation bus stops (or from their homes for people with disabilities) to predesignated shelters,” says Karla Damian, a spokesperson with Miami-Dade’s Department of Transportation and Public Works. “There are no criteria. Anyone who wishes to go to a local, open shelter can take one of the evacuation buses.”
And Miami-Dade officials have found that most people want to evacuate locally if possible, which is part of what makes the program such a success.
Timing of transit evacuations
Each evacuation effort is nuanced, but follows a similar playbook once the National Hurricane Center says Miami will likely be in the storm’s track.
Miami-Dade transit takes its cue from the county’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and evacuation buses start running up to several days before a storm is forecast to actually make landfall.
Typically, the buses will operate only during normal revenue hours because that has proven sufficient to get the job done. However, evacuation busses can run around the clock if instructed to do so by the EOC.
Then, the clock winds down.
Bus evacuation service ends three hours before the first tropical storm force winds hit (39mph/63kmh) the nearby coastline. That’s typically a sign the storm’s hurricane force winds (74mph/119kmh) will soon be within striking distance of southern Florida.
Uses for Miami-Dade Transit Buses in a Hurricane
Miami-Dade County also uses transit vehicles to bring key personnel into the storm zones when needed. And the buses become shelters themselves in storms’ aftermath, when many are without power and the South Florida weather is humid and often sweltering.
Says Damian, “Transit buses also were used to transport emergency relief personnel, or provide relief for nursing home residents who were without air conditioning.”
The transit evacuation program has been operating in some way for at least 20 years, according to Miami-Dade DOT. And after each hurricane season the department reviews what worked well and what didn’t, to tighten the plan even more.
Also, all this receives backing at the state level, as the Florida Department of Transportation works with Miami-Dade transit to make sure its projects are not interfering with evacuation efforts.
“Ahead of a storm, all work on construction projects is stopped, all construction sites are closed and all equipment is secured,” says Ivette Ruiz-Paz from FDOT.
That means people trying to evacuate by both car and bus have fewer obstacles to contend with on their journey.
New Orleans: Use of Transit to Evacuate
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 – when tens of thousands chose not to evacuate, or could not for various reasons. Flooding destroyed many of the city’s neighborhoods, people waited days to be rescued and many were stranded without food or drinkable water. The storm exposed the need for using mass transit more effectively during evacuations to get people out of trouble before trouble starts.
“It has been in development and improvement since after Hurricane Katrina,” says Bambi Hall, a spokesperson with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
Now there are 17 designated pick-up sites around New Orleans and some were used in the fall of 2017 ahead of Hurricane Nate.
Efforts that leverage transit make sense in so many ways, Hall says, for emergencies: “Short timeframe, mass evacuation, people without capabilities to evacuate including monetary, lack of vehicles, age and health reasons.”
New Orleans encourages citizens to pre-register for help by calling 311 or filing an online request. It does not turn anyone away who needs help, but pre-registration helps operations to run more smoothly.
And in the case of New Orleans and its low-lying land, many evacuees actually have two journeys on transit: the first is to the Union Passenger Terminal/Amtrak Station. The second is out of town and often out of state. This is not by chance, but rather, by plan.
“Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee. Wherever contracts are finalized for that particular year,” says Hall.
Returning Evacuees Home
Both New Orleans and Miami-Dade utilize transit buses to bring people back to their neighborhoods and evacuation stops once it is safe for them to return home.
That’s part of the agreement each has with its citizens. It does more than just close the transit loop.
It saves lives.
Miami-Dade County Evacuation Bus Routes: https://www.miamidade.gov/fire/library/hurricane/evacuation-pickup-sites.pdf
New Orleans Transit Evacuation Plan: