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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 3 > Learning from Disaster|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-001
Learning from Disaster
by Steve Jacobitz
Florida's 2004 hurricane season provides a number of lessons for improving transportation preparations and response.
Four major hurricanes struck the State of Florida during a brief 5-week period in 2004. This unprecedented series of natural disasters magnified the already enormous impact of each individual storm and tested the Federal and Florida's emergency transportation response and recovery systems.
When the season ended, the Florida Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had completed more than 1,200 Detailed Damage Inspection Reports (DDIR), cataloging more than $963 million in damage to Federal-aid highways in the State.
Of course, prior to 2004, Florida's transportation agencies were no strangers to hurricanes. Storms such as Andrew (1992) and Opal (1995) taught valuable if hard-won lessons about the damage potential of a major hurricane. From the rubble of past destruction, FHWA and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had constructed new rules and new tools to better prepare for future emergencies.
But in the late summer of 2004, it became clear that there was still much more to be learned.
The destruction of 2004 started with Hurricane Charley on an unlucky Friday the 13th in August. A powerful, fast-moving category four storm, with sustained winds of 240 kilometers per hour (km/h) (150 miles per hour, mph) at its center, Charley traveled into the Gulf of Mexico, turned shoreward at Charlotte Harbor, and continued to the northeast, ripping through coastal communities while hoarding strength for surprised residents as far inland as Orlando. When it exited the State 9 hours later at Daytona Beach, Charley left a bill of more than $14 billion in U.S. property damage.
For FDOT and transportation contractors, the first priority was opening the roads for search and rescue, reconnaissance, and other emergency responder teams. That meant clearing tons of debris from hundreds of miles of Federal-aid highways and State roads, and securing or repairing damaged sections of roadway. County and municipal agencies also fielded employee and contractor crews to clear local roads, and FHWA transportation engineers from the Florida Division were dispatched to begin county-by-county damage assessments for the emergency relief (ER) program.
Overall, the recovery efforts were successful in the days following the storm. Water, ice, and food were available, medical and shelter needs were being met, and residents who evacuated were returning to deal with the hurricane's aftermath. That's when tropical storm Frances was spotted off the coast of Africa.
And Then There Were Four
Just 8 days into the recovery efforts for Charley, Frances was spawned in the Atlantic. By September 2, it was a category three storm slamming into the Bahamas. As the hurricane moved on toward Florida's Atlantic coast, it prompted the largest evacuation in Florida's history, numbering 2.8 million persons. At midnight on September 5, a large but weakening Frances came ashore at Sewall's Point in Martin County with category two sustained winds of 169 km/h (105 mph). Still, the hurricane force winds (119 km/h or 74 mph and higher) extended 137 kilometers (85 miles) and tropical storm force winds (63-118 km/h or 73 mph) ranged more than 322 kilometers (200 miles). Heavy rainfall brought a threat of flooding in many areas.
One outcome of the storm was unexpected--a fuel shortage for the Florida peninsula. The problem may have had its seed from residents and tourists taking advantage of the final days of the State's month-long gasoline tax holiday in August, but it was compounded when Charley and now the threat of Frances delayed shipborne deliveries of fuel. Major ports were shut down or had limited access. Even fuel tankers already at port facilities could not pump their vital cargo for fear it could jeopardize the hull integrity of ships riding out the storm.
Next, barely 10 days into the recovery effort for Frances, Hurricane Ivan struck near the northwestern panhandle community of Pensacola. Ivan was a fierce storm that raised waves in the Gulf measured at more than 17.7 meters (58 feet) as the storm approached the coast. Centered at Gulf Shores, AL, Ivan made landfall at 2 a.m. central daylight time, September 16, as a category three storm, with sustained 209-km/h (130-mph) winds at the center and pushing a 4.6-meter (15-foot) storm surge. To the east, the fierce gusts of the deadly northeastern quadrant of the storm struck Florida's gulf coast. A storm surge washed over barrier island resort communities and rushed up Escambia Bay, taking out the bridge approaches for U.S. 98, crippling both spans of the I-10 bridge over the bay, and damaging the approaches to a U.S. 90 bridge at the bay's northern tip. Hurricane-force winds were felt along a 185-kilometer (115-mile) stretch of the gulf coast, with tropical storm force winds extending 354 kilometers (220 miles).
With the Pensacola and Escambia Bay Bridges out, except for two lanes of U.S. 90 open on a restricted basis, transporting first responders and life-sustaining supplies of water, ice, and meals to Pensacola became a logistical challenge. Supply trucks followed a long, slow detour route, and, once runways were reopened, C-130 cargo planes were used to take supplies to the city.
Ivan also resulted in a near-total blackout of the far western panhandle counties. Power was not restored for weeks in many areas. The fourth storm, Hurricane Jeanne, struck on September 25, 9 days after Ivan. Jeanne was an Atlantic coast storm, and, when it came ashore as a category three with 193-km/h (120-mph) sustained winds, it struck in the same general area Frances had hit 20 days earlier, undoing emergency repairs and further aggravating flooding conditions. Emergency resources across the State were stretched near the breaking point.
For all four storms combined, the Florida Division of Emergency Management's tally included the following statistics:
Source: National Hurricane Center.
Transportation Agencies Respond
From a highway transportation perspective, the heavy part of the hurricane response fell to FDOT. Organized into seven districts, plus Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, FDOT crews and State contractors were out well in advance of the storms, ensuring that preparations were made.
Evacuations were the early priority. According to Frank Day, head of FDOT's emergency operations team, "The DEM [Florida Division of Emergency Management] and each county have an evacuation plan, which we support. We also work with agencies in bordering States since an evacuation may impact them. Our role in the process is to provide staff to DEM at the SEOC [State Emergency Operations Center] and share our transportation expertise. We also provide physical assistance with signs indicating detours and evacuation routes."
The counties were responsible for making the decisions on which areas to evacuate and when to start. To avoid bottlenecks, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise and other expressway authorities suspended toll operations along the evacuation routes.
As soon as each hurricane passed through an area, and sometimes during the course of the storm, FDOT personnel were on the move. "Our overall priority is to restore all transportation facilities within the State," Day says, "including the interstates, the State highways, the intermodal connectors, and other public roads. The key is to make everything passable for search and rescue missions, as well as for the emergency or first responders who provide food, water, shelter, and medical care.
Responding to the approaching hurricanes, FEMA activated the Federal Emergency Support Function 1-transportation--prompting the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to begin preparations. The FHWA Florida Division emergency response team was called on to report for shifts at the SEOC in Tallahassee. There, they worked with the FDOT team responsible for coordinating transportation-related missions. FHWA volunteers from Florida and out-of-State divisions also worked with FEMA at central logistical staging areas, coordinating the delivery of vital relief supplies such as water, ice, and food.
In the FHWA Florida Division Office, damage assessment teams were organizing for what would be many weeks of ER work in the impact areas and followup activity back in the office. As each storm passed, FHWA transportation engineers fanned out across the State to evaluate the damage and document the nature and cost of repairs. FHWA Florida Division Program Operations Engineer Don Davis describes the process: "The first thing we had to do as a team was prepare. We made sure the TEs [transportation engineers] had the current ER program requirements and the tools needed for the challenging fieldwork."
The TEs kept in touch with their assigned FDOT districts before, during, and after each storm. The first task was to work with our State and local partners to assess the scope of the damage. To cover the storm tracks that crisscrossed the State, they put together a game plan to efficiently inspect and document storm damage and needed repairs.
"After going to a site and verifying the damage, the TE would note the type of damage and the cause, the scope and method of any repairs, and the estimated cost. At that point, the engineer was prepared to formally document eligibility for FHWA ER reimbursement on a DDIR." One problem faced by the FHWA transportation engineers was where to draw the line in identifying each incidence of damage. "Defining a site can be a challenge," Davis says. "It's obvious when it's a roadway. But sign and signal damage was different. We ended up defining a site as a specific geographic area or by a local jurisdiction, such as a town or even a county."
Lesson One--Expecting the Unexpected
If there was one overarching lesson from the hurricanes of 2004, it was to expect the unexpected.
For example, just because no one recalls four major hurricanes striking the State in one season does not mean that it is unusual. Some climatologists remind us that the apparent jump in the number of major storms is really just a return to normal after 40 years of abnormally low activity. For emergency planners, the message is clear: Get ready--it can and very likely will get worse in the years to come.
Common assumptions can lead to serious problems, particularly when they involve predicting where a hurricane will make landfall. The National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center and major news organizations produce tracking maps showing the predicted path of a storm and a surrounding "cone of uncertainty" that delineates the possible error range. In 2004 the problem was that too many people and even some agencies focused on the centerline of a storm's forecast path and not the wider error range.
Charley was a prime example of a hurricane that caught a lot of people off guard. The morning of the day it made landfall, Charley was a category two hurricane headed north along Florida's Gulf coast toward Tampa Bay. As Tampa-St. Petersburg residents and emergency planners prepared for the worst, other areas along the southwestern coast braced themselves for the lesser impact of tropical storm force winds and rain. However, Charley rapidly grew into a powerful category four and turned into Charlotte Harbor, well south of Tampa, surprising much of the local population, particularly those who had chosen not to heed the evacuation warnings for the coastal counties. Charley went on to cross the State and hammer Orlando with hurricane-force winds, shattering another assumption--that the area was too far inland to be harmed.
The bent or broken high-mast light poles along I-75 were part of the price paid by not allowing for the possibility of Charley's last-minute shift. The lights that made the poles top heavy were intended to be lowered to the ground in the event of high winds. Mike Akridge, FDOT deputy State traffic engineer, recalls, "In 2004, some of our districts and contractors didn't clearly understand the requirement to lower the lights if hurricane winds might hit an area. However, we learned quickly and it was a real lifesaver for the poles and the lights."
Lesson Two--Dealing With Inexperience
"Most of us were inexperienced in 2004," FHWA's Davis says. "The State had not been hit by a major hurricane since Irene in 1999. In our FHWA office, there were just a few people who had worked through a hurricane. Only two transportation engineers on my staff had hands-on ER experience, so I paired each one up with another TE and sent them out as teams after Hurricane Charley."
The FHWA ER teams coached State and local personnel on the ER rules and procedures. "The State did a tremendous job in getting the damaged roadways repaired quickly," Davis points out. "We just needed to stress the importance of documenting the hurricane damage."
Florida's use of asset management contracting presented a new challenge. "Dealing with asset management contracts was new to us in handling ER," Davis recalls. "Some Federal-aid roads were being maintained by private contractors hired by the State, and there wasn't always a clear understanding by the State or the contractors about how the contractors' repair efforts fit into the ER program. But we were able to assist by clarifying the necessary level of State involvement to help ensure ER eligibility."
Documenting how each new issue was handled was essential to managing the ER process. "As the hurricane season wore on through four major storms, it was important to maintain consistency in the ER process," Davis says. "We developed and continued to refine a question-and-answer document for our TEs, which we also shared with State and local agencies."
Training also took on new importance. FDOT's Day says, "Local government didn't have a good grasp of the Federal-aid system. In particular, they didn't understand the difference between FHWA and FEMA. Going into 2004, our emergency management training sessions in recent years were poorly attended by local agencies. In 2005, we're pursuing this training much more aggressively. We're no longer waiting for an invitation; we're taking it to them."
Lesson Three--Keeping in Touch
Commercial cellular communications were a common casualty of the storms of 2004, with outages of 24 hours or more in many areas and limited service as a system was gradually brought back online. As a result, cell phones could not be relied on for critical emergency communications during early recovery operations.
One key alternative for FDOT was the State's microwave transmission network. Generally it performed well, but even this system suffered due to damaged antennas and power loss at microwave tower sites. Although sites with standby generators were kept in service, finding and installing emergency generators significantly delayed the recovery of radio communications in some areas. Problems also developed with accessing some out-of-service tower sites due to flooding conditions.
FDOT used a limited number of satellite phones, but they were considered a costly alternative. They served well as a reliable backup system, however, and additional satellite equipment was purchased for future emergencies.
The State is now upgrading its radio network to improve the range of mobile-to-mobile communications, and it is installing fixed standby generators at its microwave tower sites. Drainage issues are being addressed at sites susceptible to minor flooding.
Lesson Four--Restoring Signal Operations
Among the first casualties of a hurricane's high winds are traffic lights (signal heads). The wind tears traffic lights from their supporting hangers, or they plunge to the pavement when their supporting wires or poles are snapped. Even when signals survived the passage of a fierce storm, the power to keep them operating was generally out, a problem that often lasted for days and sometimes weeks.
According to Paul Clark, program manager, FDOT Traffic Incident Management, "Prevention is important to maintaining signal operations following a hurricane. Local governments have the discretion to consider taking down signal lights in advance of the hurricane. They make the request that the local district DOT has to approve."
Of course, not all signals at an intersection are removed. "They basically only took down the nonrequired signals," Clark explains. "As many as half the signals were taken down in some areas of expected impact, with careful attention paid to the standards of the MUTCD [FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices]." (For the MUTCD, see http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov.)
Although some agencies removed and secured signal lights as the storms approached, others did not. For some, it was a matter of a hurricane's unpredictable point of landfall. For others, it was a combination of concerns, such as potential liability in the event of a crash and difficulties associated with removing, storing, tracking, and reattaching the signals.
The lights that remained suffered severe damage. FDOT's Akridge explains, "Once the storms were over, we quickly took a look at why we lost so many signals and came up with two areas for improvement. One was signal hangers. The aluminum hangers that were in common use were just not strong enough, so we've worked on redesigning our specifications to achieve much higher survivability." FDOT hopes to patent a new design for hangers capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds.
"The other area for improvement was signal poles," Akridge says. "It was obvious that mast-arm signal supports performed far better than wire-hung signals. In fact, through four hurricanes, there were only about 20 mast-arm failures in the entire State, and those were primarily due to twisting." The 20 failures were a small percentage of the 3,500 signalized intersections sustaining hurricane damage in 2004.
Restoring signal operations was complicated by widespread and often long-term power outages. Not only were replacement signal heads in increasingly short supply with each storm, but also generators were needed urgently. FDOT's Day recalls, "Going into 2004, we only had a reserve supply of 100 generators, tops. Our vendors rushed new generators to us." The agency acquired approximately 650 new generators for emergency recovery use.
The generators had their own unique issues. Refueling every 6 to 8 hours was a constant challenge, particularly with gasoline shortages and the potential to lose track of generators moved to new locations as power was restored.
Further, many signal systems were not designed for use with generators. "There was really no way to power up those signals other than to splice into the electrical lines," notes Akridge. "Now, as signal lights are replaced or repaired, many have a plug-in connection for a generator." The State also has plans to retrofit existing traffic signal control cabinets.
But the most frustrating problem was generator theft. "We learned to secure them to a signal light pole with a cable, not a chain," said FDOT's Akridge. "We had reports of folks plugging electric chainsaws into our generators and then using them to cut through the chains. Cable locks worked best."
Looking ahead, FDOT is much better prepared to deal with emergency power demands. "We needed a lot of generators in a hurry in 2004," Akridge notes. "But now we've got 977 on hand. Most of them are in the districts' inventories, but there are 348 in a central warehouse in Orlando, shrink-wrapped, palletized, and ready to move."
FDOT's Clark adds, "A key advantage to having a good supply of generators is that we can quickly relieve law enforcement officers from traffic duty at key intersections following a hurricane. Last year, they were stretched thin, which compromised their ability to perform other critical functions such as post-storm security. By the time we got to Ivan and had generators ready to go, we could quickly free up hundreds of officers for other missions."
Newer signal head technology also is expected to improve preparedness. "We learned," says Clark, "that generator maintenance and the size of generators needed could be minimized by replacing destroyed incandescent signal lights with the newer LED [light-emitting diode] signal lights with substantially reduced power consumption." The State intends to install only LED signals on all future projects.
Lesson Five--Clearing the Debris
A hurricane is a perfect machine for creating debris, as it destroys and scatters the remains of structures, signs, utility poles, and trees. It can take months to clear an area of storm debris completely, but the transportation agencies and local governments have a more immediate target: to open as many roads as possible within a day of the event.
In the rush to accomplish that mission, beginning with Hurricane Charley, it became apparent that not everyone was clear on the Federal-aid emergency assistance requirements. FHWA's Davis describes the process: "FHWA paid for the initial push to clear debris off the Federal-aid highways and the first pass to remove the debris. But local residents and repair crews would often put debris on the already cleared right-of-way as they dug out from the storm's damage. That made it critical for local agencies to document debris removal, so we could verify what was in that initial push and first pass, and what was not. The most effective method used by local agencies to manage debris removal was to have tickets completed for each load, detailing where and when it was picked up and its disposal."
To further complicate the situation, some agencies did not understand basic differences in disaster assistance from FHWA and FEMA. "Unfortunately, there was sometimes confusion regarding FHWA's ER program and FEMA's emergency aid program," Davis explains. "A few local agencies and some public assistance representatives operated with the understanding that FEMA would reimburse them for all their debris removal costs. Later, when FEMA processed the claims, the expenses that were FHWA-eligible were kicked back to the local communities. At that point, they would notify us, and a much delayed FHWA ER process could begin. That's why we're still hearing about new claims months after a storm hit."
There were also practical lessons to be learned about how to administer a debris removal contract. "Debris removal was a challenge to manage," says Davis. "Contractors who were paid by weight were sometimes inclined to pick up only the heavy debris and leave the lighter limbs and rubbish behind--just as those paid by volume might tend to ignore the heavier debris. Agencies needed to inspect and track the process."
Lesson Six--Preparing the Contracts
Emergency contracts were the order of the day for each hurricane that blew ashore during 2004. They were mostly needed for debris removal, sign and signal repair and replacement, and roadway repairs. And, even in the face of a disaster, contracting rules needed to be followed. "For the ER program, it's important for State and local agencies preparing emergency contracts to meet Federal requirements, such as including the Bacon-Davis wage rates and FHWA 1273 provisions," Davis notes. "If these requirements are missing, otherwise qualified emergency expenses could become ineligible for reimbursement." Form FHWA 1273 is a collection of contract provisions and notices required by FHWA and other Federal agencies, including such key items as equal employment opportunity and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 regulations, as well as U.S. Department of Labor requirements for payment of regional prevailing wages per the Bacon-Davis Act.
FDOT has developed a model contract to serve as a guideline in emergencies and to aid in drafting pre-event contracts, which are permissible immediately before a hurricane is expected to make landfall. "Creating 'hurricane contracts' is an important step for State and local governments," advises FDOT's Akridge. "That way you're ready to handle major short-notice needs such as debris removal and roadway assistance."
Lesson Seven--Upgrading an Emergency Operations Center
In 2004 the FDOT team working in the SEOC had state-of-the-art facilities and technical support, but their own operations center at the FDOT headquarters was less sophisticated. In 2005 improvements were made that will enable FDOT to respond to hurricanes and address the recovery needs more efficiently. FDOT's Day describes some of the upgrades: "Now we have more full-featured PC [personal computer] stations, with a new internal tracking system to stay on top of FDOT's emergency missions. And, although we always had generator backup, now we have climate control as well."
Bryan Hubbard, FDOT Central Office emergency coordination officer, elaborates on the enhanced emergency center's operations. "Last year we pushed a lot of the missions over from the SEOC using Lotus® Notes®. It worked well, but there were inherent problems. You could come in for the morning shift and find that more than 100 e-mails had come in with updates on missions. Now our folks over at the SEOC can enter the mission directly into our database, without the need to rekey the information.
"When a mission is received, it can be tasked directly to the FDOT Maintenance Office or to the appropriate district, as needed. Each recipient can then update the status of the mission to indicate if equipment or other support is en route, or if the mission is completed." Along with the new facility, the procedures for coordinating between FDOT offices also were improved. Day explains, "We developed a standardized situation report, or SitRep. So, rather than have each district give a report on the status of their roads at our afternoon teleconference, all that can be reviewed prior to the meeting. That let us concentrate on what's most important to the districts in responding to the emergency. In addition, we provide the SitRep information to our Public Information Office to distribute at its daily press conference to keep the public informed on road status."
Graduating From The College of Hard Knocks
The lessons from the hurricanes of 2004 were put to the test on July 10, 2005, when Hurricane Dennis, a category three storm, hit the Florida panhandle just east of Pensacola, following a path similar to Ivan's the previous year. Fortunately, there was abundant evidence that the lessons from 2004 had been turned into action plans.
A few examples of the successful responses include:
Steve Jacobitz is a marketing and communications specialist in the FHWA Florida Division. He also serves as a member of the Florida State Emergency Response Team, and he worked at the SEOC and in the field during the 2004-2005 hurricane emergencies.
For more information, contact Steve Jacobitz at 850-942-9650 or email@example.com.
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