Transportation in a disaster zone

Purdue study looks at ways for tri-state area to move, care for those with nowhere to go

If catastrophe struck the Chicago area, many thousands of evacuees would require transportation out of the disaster zone and a place to receive medical care, food and temporary shelter.

Regional reception centers would be needed to pop into action immediately, though there are no formal guidelines for establishing such facilities under existing federal emergency management plans, experts say.

Recent history has made one lesson clear, officials said. Regional centers receiving people evacuating natural or man-made disasters must be much better organized and equipped than the sweltering mess that was the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As a result, researchers at Purdue University's Homeland Security Institute have completed a new study that models how regional emergency reception centers would operate to improve the speed of an evacuation in a 16-county area of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The scenario the researchers used in their analysis could hardly be more devastating.

A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb explodes in downtown Chicago and everybody inside the blast radius is killed. Outside the blast zone, an estimated 1 million people are displaced from their homes.

About 90 percent will have a shelter available outside the area and transportation to get there.

But the remaining 100,000 evacuees — and about 41,000 pets they attempt to bring with them — will have nowhere to go.

It would be extremely challenging to serve, process and in some cases protect from each other so many people, including families, the elderly, unaccompanied minors, inmates, patients from hospitals and mental institutions, and sex offenders, the Purdue researchers said.

"There would be many permutations of people. We focused on modeling the logistics and flow rate of people in and out of the reception centers to keep all the evacuees secure and avoid overrunning the facilities," said Eric Dietz, director of Purdue's Homeland Security Institute in West Lafayette, Ind.

In the nuclear disaster scenario, one of the first steps would involve filtering out individuals requiring decontamination treatment and quickly channeling the rest of the people to the services they need, officials said.

"The steps would include feeding them, offering them showers, medical attention and cots to sleep on. The center's personnel would also need to be prepared to transport in materials like linens, and transport out the massive amounts of trash that would be created," Dietz said.

Coordinating existing transportation to the reception centers via cars, trucks, buses and trains, and establishing new transportation methods to deal with the crush of evacuees, are key components that fell short during Katrina, experts said.

"In New Orleans, there were all sorts of buses that could have been used to transport hurricane victims who were made homeless, but they didn't have enough bus operators available during the crisis," said Kasey Faust, a Purdue graduate student in civil engineering who studied transportation factors in the Chicago disaster scenario.

Effective use of the highway system is critical during an evacuation, Faust said, adding that protocols must be in place, for example, to use express lanes to quickly flip the direction of traffic.

Purdue's computerized analysis, which included graphical and numerical representations of people and pets, simulated how the emergency reception center would operate room by room, from the entrances to living and nutrition areas, to medical wards and pet shelters.

The goals outlined in the Purdue study include processing all evacuees through the reception center in seven days and having each person spend no more than 24 hours in the center before being moved to more permanent living quarters.

The Purdue study is ongoing and will assess whether Chicago's catastrophic planning goals are attainable.

Purdue is under contract with Chicago to expand the city's emergency planning readiness.

Two spokeswomen for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, Delores Robinson and Therese Kordelewski, did not respond to the Tribune's repeated inquiries. Earl Mashaw, OEMC's project manager for regional catastrophic preparedness, said he could not discuss the issue until given approval by the agency's news affairs office.

Up to five regional hub reception centers are envisioned in the Purdue simulation, said Clifford Wojtalewicz, managing director at the university's Homeland Security Institute.

Some of the reception centers would be at college campuses because they are equipped with much of the necessary infrastructure, Wojtalewicz said. Two sites, Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and Valparaiso University in Indiana, were chosen to conduct simulation exercises, he said.

"We hope we never have to mobilize the reception centers, but the ability to overcome a disaster is going to be strongly dependent on being prepared for it," Dietz said. "The last thing we want to do is put victims where we don't have sufficient resources."

Contact Getting Around at jhilkevitch@tribune.com or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611; on Twitter @jhilkevitch; and at facebook.com/jhilkevitch. Read recent columns at chicagotribune.com/gettingaround.

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