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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Preparing for the Worst

Regional Catastrophic Planning Teams Work to Unify Responses When Disasters Strike 

By Mark Solof

High Threat, High Risk Urban Areas Receiving Catastrophic Planning Funds

  • Bay Area
  • Boston Area
  • Chicago Area
  • Houston Area
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach Area
  • National Capital Region
  • New York City-Northern New Jersey Area
  • Honolulu Area
  • Norfolk Area
  • Seattle Area

NY-NJ Catastrophic Plans Under Development

  • Regional Disaster Housing Plan: Assess needs of displaced persons, provide interim housing and long-term housing, and restore housing.
  • Regional Geographic Information System: Create a central data clearinghouse where local jurisdictions can obtain geographic data for joint planning.
  • Virtual Regional Operations Center: Secure, user-friendly platform for jurisdictions to share situational awareness and build a common operating picture.
  • Regional Evacuation and Sheltering Plan: Regional timelines to coordinate mass evacuation and sheltering of the general public, special- needs groups, healthcare facilities, the homebound and pets.
  • Regional Critical Infrastructure Protection Plan: Comprehensive regional strategy for critical infrastructure resilience, to focus on interdependence of power providers and their ability to recover from major events.
  • Regional Debris Management Plan: Improve capacity to estimate, transport, store and remove post-event debris.
  • Regional Disaster Logistics Program: Develop plans and execute projects that optimize the region’s ability to manage resources prior to, during and after a catastrophic incident.
  • Regional Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan: Assess resilience of local agencies for catastrophic events and plan coordinated operations to restore essential functions.
  • Regional Mass Fatality Plan: Enable rapid, coordinated deployment of mortuary operations to catastrophic events by building a regional mass fatality board to strengthen field and surge capacity.
  • Regional Radiological Response & Recovery Plan: Compile strategies and plans for radiologic events. To include containment, mass decontamination and recovery and restoration of sites.



Andrew Mills/Star-Ledger/Corbis

Zeliff Avenue in Wayne, N.J., is flooded by the Passaic River

following Hurricane Irene in August.

Imagine the impact of Hurricane Irene multiplied many times over. The August storm caused at least 45 deaths, widespread flooding, power outages for 3 million homes, the disruption of key highway and rail routes and $10 billion or more in property damage from North Carolina to New England.

Yet Irene’s impact could have been far worse. Experts say that it was only a fortuitous combination of factors—colder than normal sea temperatures, an injection of dryer air from inland and wind  shear from a weather system to the west—-that weakened the storm as it moved up the East Coast. By the time it made landfall in the New Jersey and New York City area, Irene had dropped to a Category 1 hurricane from its peak as a Category 3, which would have carried winds one-third stronger and three times the storm surge.

It happened in 1821, when a Category 4 hit Cape May, N.J., and traveled a path similar to Irene’s up the coast. It happened again in 1938, when a fast-moving Category 3 storm, the so-called “Long Island Express,” slammed into the middle of then sparsely-populated Long Island with 120 mph winds and storm surges up to 12 feet. The storm ultimately caused 600 deaths as it barreled through New England.

Today, after decades of rapid growth and development, a storm like the Long Island Express would likely cause far more damage than the $75 billion wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and put many, many thousands of people in the New York-New Jersey region at risk.

As the experience of Irene shows, the region is not unprepared. State and local governments have been putting in place the equipment, personnel and operational plans—while engaging in near constant dialogue and exercises—to cope with potential hurricanes, terrorist attacks and other disasters.

Contemplating the worst case scenarios—like a direct hit from a Category 3 storm—and finding approaches that could bring a semblance of order to potential chaos, while preparing for a rebound from devastation, has been the focus of planning efforts since 2007 in the New York-New Jersey region and in nine other major urban areas across the country. Funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant Program (RCPG) supports advance planning for events affecting many thousand or even millions of people over wide areas—not only hurricanes but possible terrorist attacks involving multiple explosive devices or radioactive contamination, disease pandemics and even the crippling of cyberspace.

Unity of Efforts

“We know that everything is going to be overwhelmed. Nobody really has enough resources to respond to a catastrophic event in a major metropolitan area,” said Steve Gutkin, the executive director of the FEMA-funded Regional Integration Center located in lower Manhattan. “Our plans focus on coordinating a regional response, communicating between all jurisdictions and a unity of efforts—these are our three cornerstone principals.”

The Regional Integration Center in Lower Manhattan coordinates

emergency response plans for numerous agencies in New York,

New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

The center, with a staff of 26 experts, is working to create plans to guide coordinated responses to a catastrophe in a 30-county area (13 counties in New Jersey, 13 in New York, one in Pennsylvania and three in Connecticut) that is home to 22 million people. The center takes direction from a Regional Catastrophic Planning Team composed of major emergency management agencies in the region.

Over 700 planning team members are participating in the development of the various plans, through regular conference calls, meetings, summits, exercises and other activities. Participants range from emergency personnel and first responders to public health specialists, architects, Red Cross and Salvation Army staffers to utilities and others.

“Early on, we embraced the concept of ‘whole community,’ because everybody is going to have to respond to a catastrophic event,” Gutkin said. “That’s why we have so many people on our planning teams. And we’re constantly expanding.”

The nine plans under development cover key challenges likely to be faced during a disaster involving evacuation, housing, critical infrastructure, debris management and other areas (see sidebar). The plans are intended to supplement and coordinate, rather than supplant, the extensive emergency response plans already in place at the state, county and local levels. 

The need for shelter is an example of the preparations that must be attended to. In the case of Hurricane Irene, experts from the Regional Integration Center assisted New York City and New Jersey in setting up and supplying shelters for potentially hundreds of thousands of residents in the days before the storm. Up to a million people in New Jersey and 300,000 people in New York City were under evacuation orders, though as the storm weakened, many were persuaded to forego shelters. Yet severe flooding kept some shelters in northern New Jersey open for days after the storm.

A storm causing more extensive damage would bring the need for longer-term replacement housing on a large scale. Dropping FEMA trailers one per family on empty lots—the approach used after Katrina in much of New Orleans and surrounding areas—would simply not work in the many densely populated neighborhoods of New York-New Jersey where high rises and other multifamily dwellings predominate.

A recent design contest in New York sought concepts for

compact emergency housing. In a major urban area like

New York City, setting up trailers on large tracts of land

may not be feasible

“The interim and long-term housing modeling currently available to respond to disasters in other parts of the country are more [focused on] suburban or rural environments, not urban environments,” Gutkin said.

At a Housing Summit held in July, 100 participants explored strategies to be included in a Post-Disaster Housing Recovery Plan for the region. “The issue will not be money,” said New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness Deputy Director Joe Picciano. “The issue will be, how will we spend it and how will we have something on the street to work with quickly?… We absolutely need [the housing recovery plan] to be successful.”

To explore options for the construction of longer-term housing for use while areas are rebuilt, the New York City Office of Emergency Management conducted a design competition for “Post-Disaster Provisional Housing” in 2007. It garnered proposals for housing using stackable steel shipping containers, pre-fabricated units fitting into multi- story frames, offshore floating facilities and accordion-like units using fabric or elastic materials.

Widening Focus

The federal emphasis on and funding for regionwide catastrophic planning evolved from the fevered push for improved homeland security after the events of 9/11. The initial federal funding largely went toward improved tools for first responders to deal with terrorism, such as respirators, decontamination units, communications systems, patrol boats, surveillance cameras and other equipment.

Over time, the new federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created by Congress in 2002 as the umbrella agency for FEMA, the Coast Guard and other security agencies, shifted to an “all hazards” approach to preparedness.
This recognized that, regardless of the cause—terrorism, weather, industrial or nuclear accidents, etc.—the responses required by state and local emergency officials in many respects are the same. They must activate emergency operations centers, mobilize equipment, deploy search and rescue, warn or evacuate residents, provide food and shelter, prepare medical services, among other activities.

The largest federal grant program supporting all-hazard responses, the Urban Area Strategic Initiatives (UASI), targets funding to urban areas with “high density, high threat” characteristics. UASI funding flows to 31 urban areas,
10 of which are considered “Tier 1” and get special priority (see list at top right).

For New York City and northern New Jersey, each with Tier 1 status, a key early effort using UASI funding was improving the coordination of their emergency management operations. Despite the border down the Hudson River, the two halves of the metropolitan region are tightly integrated. Each day 300,000 New Jersey residents work in New York City and 65,000 New Yorkers commute to New Jersey. A steady flow of trucks bring essential goods from port facilities and distribution warehouses in New Jersey to New York City homes and businesses.

Blackout, Katrina Spur Reforms

The need for this bi-state coordination was underscored on a massive scale when the Northeast blackout occurred on Aug. 14, 2003. As people poured out of darkened office buildings, they found clogged streets with traffic lights not working. Subways and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which normally serves 7,200 buses and 200,000 people each day, were both shut down. The city’s ferry services were overwhelmed.

Andrea Booher/FEMA

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston Police look at a Red Cross

lost family members board in the Astrodome, where many families from

New Orleans were evacuated and looking for loved ones.

For several hours, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans found themselves stranded far from home. The event prompted officials of both states to begin creating a Trans-Hudson Emergency Transportation Plan which relies heavily on waterborne transport—with ferries supplemented by tour boats, party boats and all manner of vessels—to get people to central gathering points served by public and private transit. The plan was completed in 2007.

Two years after the blackout, the nation as a whole received a lesson about the need for disaster planning when Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005. It was the nation’s costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths. Investigations into the failures contributing to the disaster—including failures by state and local officials, the national guard, the Army Corp of Engineers and in particular FEMA—led to calls for averting a repeat elsewhere.

“Almost exactly four years after 9/11, Katrina showed that the nation is still unprepared to respond to a catastrophe,” a U.S. Senate committee report concluded in April 2006. It called for reforms that “will put local, state, federal, and private responders in a better position to provide prompt and effective relief when disaster strikes again.”

The DHS, after surveying major cities around the nation, also found the need for change: “The majority of the nation’s current emergency operations plans and planning processes cannot be characterized as fully adequate, feasible, or acceptable to manage catastrophic events.” In particular it found much of the nation’s homeland security was “characterized by divided and decentralized planning.” The Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant Program was established in 2007 as a result.

Regional Planning Emphasized

Establishment of the RCPG program signaled another major shift in the emphasis in federal homeland security policy. This involved not only the first sustained focus on large-scale disasters but also the provision of funding specifically for planning. Previously only minor portions of funding programs— 25 percent of UASI funding—had been set aside for planning.

“That [focus on planning] was a really good move,” said Melanie Bartis, program manager of the Houston Regional Catastrophic Planning Initiative. “We’ve been able to capitalize on that not only on the plans we’re developing here but, across the country, programs are learning from each other. It’s been a real positive and collaborative process.”

Elissa Juni/FEMA

A railroad in New York is left twisted and sunken after

Hurricane Irene passed through.

The Houston Catastrophic Planning effort, she said, initially engaged in a “capability assessment and gap analysis” to size-up how existing resources and emergency operations could deal with a major catastrophe, such as a Category 5 hurricane or the detonation of multiple explosive devices. The region, due to its history of hurricanes, has evacuation plans in place that are “pretty solid,” Bartis said. Among the gaps in planning identified and being addressed are improving quick-response medical services, human services and assistance to affected families, search and rescue and coordination of responses to multiple incident sites.

“We have significant regional involvement in developing these plans,” Bartis said. “There’s a lot of discussion in person, by phone, via email—just a lot of traffic—to try to get these plans owned by the region as we’re developing them, and they’re validated as we go.”

Exercising and testing the plans in action, to avoid them becoming what Gutkin calls “credenza-ware,” is a requirement of the federal grant program. In addition to occasional “in the field” exercises, involving actual deployment of equipment and personnel, planners use so-called “tabletop” exercises, especially when plans are under development. This typically involves  a daylong meeting in which emergency managers and personnel are presented with a disaster scenario and asked to develop responses.

According to Adam Wehrenberg, project director of the Boston area RCPG program, “Agencies talk through how they would deal with that scenario, who they would coordinate with, what resources they would use, and at the end you come up with a summary of all the findings you had during the day.”

This, he said, includes an assessment of strengths and weaknesses called a “hotwash,” which is military parlance for an “after-action” evaluation. Officials in the New York-New Jersey region have been engaged in such an evaluation for Hurricane Irene, looking to find lessons that can strengthen the catastrophic plans now being developed, Gutkin said. The first of the plans will be issued in draft form this fall.

The Boston area RCPG, covering the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, has gone beyond looking at “familiar” disaster scenarios like hurricanes to contemplate a “cyber event”—that is, a complete loss of Internet capabilities in the region.

“There is such an increased reliance on cyber systems that this type of outage is no longer an inconvenience,” Wehrenberg said. “It’s really a catastrophic incident.”

He noted that the outage would not only affect email and the web but a wide range of crucial systems, including communications, security cameras and even radio networks. The cause of such an outage wouldn’t necessarily be a terrorist attack, he said. It could also be a disease pandemic that prevents technical personnel from maintaining cyber systems. A plan is under development looking at all contingencies for a cyber event. It will be shared with other regions of the country.

This ability to consider, research and plan for the unexpected has been one of the great strengths of the RCPG, even as the program faces future funding uncertainties, according those involved.

“Everyone thinks about planning for the last disaster,” Bartis said. “[This program] forces us to instead look forward to what could be the worst thing that could happen to us and try to think critically about what this would really mean, not just for our regions, but for the country.”

Mark Solof is director, public affairs and communications, at the NJTPA.

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