Evacuation, sans Car

I don’t own a car, and yet (to the great surprise of many relatives and family friends) I can pretty much get everywhere I need to without feeling like I’m sacrificing anything. Most of the time I bike, and that is plenty fast and convenient for me (not to mention freeing me up from needing to go to the gym). When I need to get somewhere farther away, I usually combine bus or MAX and bike, which works great, or I’ll take transit the whole way (such as to the airport). When I need to haul something around, or get out of town, Flexcar hooks me up real good. And the thousands I save on not owning a car go straight to my yearly 3-week overseas vacation…so I really don’t feel deprived.

Watching the news coverage of the New Orleans evacuation, though, was sobering. It sure looked like car was the only way to get out of the city. What would we have done? Would we have tried to hitch a ride with a friend? What if we couldn’t find anyone in the chaos? Would we have tried to go to the corner and find a generous stranger? Would we have reserved—or just plain taken—a Flexcar, figuring that we’d have to work it out with the company after the emergency? Or tried to get a rental car? Would transit have been available or reliable?

None of those options seem like the rock-solid emergency plan you want to have in case of an emergency. That got me to thinking about the vehicles we do have—bikes. Could we have evacuated on bikes? Most of the evacuees, at least at first, were going a mere 30 miles away. 30 miles is definitely bikeable, especially with the traffic on the freeways slowed to a crawl or even stopped. Assuming our evacuation distance would be similar, could we have brought what we needed?

We discussed things, and the only things we felt like we really couldn’t leave behind would be our important papers, our laptops, and our two cats. Two cat carriers couldn’t fit in our one trailer, though. Should we get a second trailer just in case? Or would a better solution be to put two cats in one carrier, which does fit in the trailer? Of course, the trailer would be completely full with a cat carrier, plus food, cat food, and water. I suppose if you’re biking, you’d want to bring warm clothes, rain gear, a tent and sleeping bags, because you’re more exposed to the elements, and you might not be able to get far enough in one day. Now we’re talking a decent load…but I still think you could bring that with two people and a trailer, plus panniers and/or backpacks.

So, to conclude, I don’t think it would be impossible to evacuate on bicycles. But, most importantly: just because you could do it, should you? Would it be a bad idea to not have the warmth and relative safety of a car? On the other hand, you wouldn’t have to worry about filling up on gas, so maybe it would be a smarter option.

What do you think? Are there any flaws in my plan? Would you advise against bike evacuation and tell us to find a car at any cost? In case of an emergency, could bike organizations spread the word to car-free people about how to evacuate by bike? How about a giant bike caravan, for safety and shared carrying power?

Hopefully we’ll never have to evacuate…but just in case, I’d like to have a good plan in place.


11 responses to “Evacuation, sans Car”

  1. Jessica, your post prompts a couple of thoughts:

    1) How many cars left New Orleans with empty seats or with seats containing material possesions, rather than people! I heard that some churches had plans for matching non-car-owning members with members with cars. Couldn’t disaster plans create a more widespread mechanism for this at a neighborhood level? I suspect there was plenty of vehicular capacity to evacuate the city if better used.

    2) From some reports I have heard, anyone crossing the bridge into Jefferson Parish without the clear ability to move on further was met with armed resistance from local law enforcement (last week’s episode of the public radio program This American Life had some truly astounding accounts of this). I wonder how they would have treated you on your bicycle?

    Nonetheless, I admire your preparedness for having a bike-only evacuation plan!

  2. The Pearl District won’t get flattened, it’s been built to seismic codes. But a lot of unreinforced masonry buildings around the city (I think I heard 1700 as en estimate) could come down.

  3. Jessica, I think your plan is sound. My experience consists of being close to the epicenter of the ’89 Loma Prieta earthquake (remember the trans-Bay World Series that got interupted?).
    After the shaking stopped I realized that my 6-yr-old son was probably *not* going to be promptly retrieved from after-school care by his mom, who was traveling by car on the freeway. I hopped on my bike and rode to his school, passing lots of jammed auto traffic on the streets. I was there in a few minutes.
    Granted, this was not an evacuation, but few disasters require full evacuation. The ability to get around nimbly, on a variety of terrain, is probably as useful as the ability to travel 300 miles on a tank (which might be close to empty when you need it anyway).

  4. Hmm… since experts are predicting a magnitude 9.0 earthquake somewhere in the region we live in – the last one, in 1700, was at the mouth of the Columbia, was 9.0, and created a tsunami that hit Japan very hard.

    If we got hit by that kind of earthquake close to Portland, I would imagine there would be very little left standing. Google the Kobe earthquake in Japan – which I believe was a 7-something – to see what might happen.

    Most ‘seismic refits’ don’t make them earthquake proof, just less likely to completely fail in the event of a major quake… but 9.0’s are rare enough that you probably don’t want to design everything to withstand them, since it would be prohibitively expensive.

    I don’t want to come off sounding like nobody here knows this, but…

  5. The kinds of disasters we are likely to face here fall into the “surprise” category… in the case of a major earthquake or an accidental chemical release or a deliberate attack, if an evacuation of Portland is required it will have to occur _after_ the triggering event has happened.

    As another person mentioned, preparing everything to withstand a 9.0 earthquake, even if technically possible, would be very cost prohibitive.

    But, we need to put more attention into strengthening key structures, because we do know enough now to say that a large earthquake is in Portland’s future.

    Here are a few ideas off the top of my head for preparedness (not just for earthquakes):

    1. We should construct (or reconstruct) at least one bridge across the willamette to the absolute best seismic standards, price is no object. The link between both sides of the river is vital, especially in the early hours after an event, so that emergency vehicles can move from one side of town to the other.

    2. To in the absence of #1 (or in anticipation of failure of #1), critical firefighting and lifesaving equipment should be stationed on both sides of the river. If there is something important that we have only one of, we should have two.

    3. The city should purchase and maintain one amphibious transport/barge capable of putting ashore on almost any riverbank and capable of carrying a fire truck or other large vehicle. This transport vessel could be a way to work around bridge failures or failures of the numerous ramps to/from bridges.

    4. (Perhaps something like this already exists) There should be a transit-rerouting plan in the event of a chemical cloud or “dirty bomb” attack… It would work something like this: Once an airborn pollutant emergency was declared and the prevailing winds judged, transit busses and trains would be orderd to sit and wait for (15 minutes?) while an emergency broadcast was made telling all residents who did not have a car to hop on a bus NOW. After the busses filled up or X minutes passed, they would head toward designated emergency shelters.

    5. We can assume that after a major earthquake, many automobile routes will be compromised. We should have a system of signs that direct pedestrians to neighborhood emergency shelters (buildings which we hope are seismically strengthened).

    6. We should strengthen every overpass on I-84 at least between I-5 and I-205. These overpasses represent major suface street routes for cars, busses, and pedestrians: 39th Ave, 47th Ave, 60th Ave, Halsey, Sandy, 82nd Ave, and others. If any one of these structures should fail, the MAX line, major freight line, and freeway below would become blocked and useless. As people who live in NE have already discovered when there is a presidential or vice-presidential visit, these overpasses are closed and NE portland is essentially cut off from the rest of the city.

    7. Similar situations to #6 in other parts of town should be similarly addressed.

    I’m sure theres important stuff I’ve missed that should be prioritized higher than some of this, but that’s just off the top of my head.

  6. Chris,

    Its not the building codes that would be the deciding factor in an earthquake greater then 8.0. The buildings built on infill will shake more and thus will be more likely to fail.

    If the building is built on bedrock then there is a better chance for structural success. I don’t think any building in Portland have the technical internal equipment like counter weights and shock absorbers/coils that could help with stand a “big one”.

    Portland sits atop a fracture zone with alot of small faults with the larger faults at deeper levels (e.g., The West Hills). The question is: If the faults move in one area (The West Hills) strongly will the other smaller faults move too?


  7. As for the barge idea, would the ones from Ross Island S&G work (except for not being amphibious)? I think a real issue is how to get the vehicle on land–many riverbanks are steep and I’m not sure if there’s enough boat ramps. A plan to use the river is a good alternative if roads become impassable.

    Also, it seems that this would be a case where transit would work better than bikes. In fact, the 2004 storm has gotten TriMet to think about it:

    In the longer term, Hansen said TriMet also plans to study whether it should identify special routes that would carry the bulk of bus service during “major disruptions,” which could include severe weather, earthquakes or other disasters.

    Such a system would assure riders of frequent service on the major routes but would require many riders to walk longer distances to reach a bus. “Some other communities do that,” Hansen said. “We need to see if it makes sense here.”

    –The Oregonian, February 12, 2004

    OTOH, bikes are more maneuverable when it comes to local travel.

  8. Reading today’s news about the car traffic evacuation in Texas coming to a standstill, cars running out of gas, the country’s worst traffic jam in time of crisis… how prophetic Jessica is! Let’s hope everyone’s ok.

  9. Yeah, I just read a first-person account in the LA Times that said traffic was moving at an average of two-thirds of a mile an hour. Add unbearable heat and humidity, bugs, and the threat of running out of gas to the equation, and taking the shoulder on my bicycle starts to sound a lot more appealing.

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