Successful: reversing highway lanes to evacuate people ahead of a hurricane

As Hurricane Matthew approached, officials used all the lanes of highways:

Across swaths of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, half the highway lanes have reversed. Traffic engineers call this “contraflow,” the volte-face of normal traffic. Now, on both sides of these roads, vehicles only run one way—away from Hurricane Matthew

To select the exit routes months or even years before hurricane season, transportation planners turn to flood maps and atmospheric modeling. They predict hazards: wind, storm surge, freshwater flooding. They rely on traffic counts and experience to predict if and when residents will decide to finally leave their homes, and how…

The planners build computer simulations of their predictions, and tinker with the variables—down to specific intersections’ traffic signals—to speed up the process. With a few days notice, some regions choose to evacuate in waves, asking those living at low elevations to depart hours or even days before inland residents.

Rural regions often direct their residents toward one major highway, physically blocking off smaller roads. This undoubtedly results in jams, but some officials would rather have their populations—with their attendant gas, medical, and food needs—bunched together than spread throughout the hinterlands. Metropolitan areas are more likely to shut down an entire stretch of interstate, forcing cars onto side roads until they converge on bumper-to-bumper congestion miles from a flood zone.

It makes sense to use all available lanes going away from the hurricane, especially toward the end when few people would want to go the other direction. I would still be intrigued to see how many police such an effort requires and how drivers navigate on and off ramps going the opposite direction than normal. Even with all the lanes open one way, I imagine the traffic is not moving too fast.

If I remember correctly, reversing the lanes of highways was also on the table during the Cold War to quickly evacuate a major city. You can read a current-day guide to preparing for a nuclear blast here – there is no mention of highways. However, it does suggest more scenarios when people might be asked to evacuate:

Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Fires and floods cause evacuations most frequently across the U.S. and almost every year, people along coastlines evacuate as hurricanes approach. In addition, hundreds of times a year, transportation and industrial accidents release harmful substances, forcing many people to leave their homes.

While people may not think about evacuations much, I don’t think the highway lane reversals are common at all.

Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.

Did the F5 Plainfield tornado contribute to suburban growth?

Some Plainfield residents feel like the destructive 1990 tornado contributed to the suburb’s later growth:

In the years after the tornado, Plainfield grew from a town of just over 4,000 to more than 41,000 residents today. Some say the tornado and subsequent attention helped put the tiny village “on the map.”

“I think a lot of people saw the community spirit and what a wonderful place this was, and I think that really prompted some of the growth,” said Kathy O’Connell, a lifelong resident who served on the village board.

She and others shared stories of how Plainfield residents pulled together to help one another. In the case of the Kinley family, one resident came forward to take in Don, his wife, Sharon, their son and his family while they rebuilt their homes.

This hints at a feature of suburban communities that many residents and leaders will discuss: their suburb has a lot of community spirit. I am skeptical of such claims for two main reasons:

  1. The people making the argument are often closely connected to civic organizations (local government, charities, business groups, etc.) where there are active community members. This is what they regularly see but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the broader population.
  2. A lot of community spirit compared to what? Would other suburban communities not respond and help if a major tornado hit their community? There is little baseline for levels of community spirit outside of personal experiences and anecdotes.

The case of Plainfield may be different: the response of people to a major natural disaster is likely more forceful than responding to daily suburban life.

Yet, I would argue the tornado just happened to occur right before Plainfield would have grown anyway. The growth was impressive: 186% growth between 1990 and 2000 (4,557 to 13,038 residents) and 204% growth between 2000 and 2010 (13,038 to 39,581 residents). But, Plainfield was not alone. This southwest sector of the Chicago region saw tremendous growth across communities. Naperville was a “boomburb” between 1980 and 2000. Aurora recently became the second-largest city in Illinois. Joliet, losing population through the 1980s, had nearly 40% growth in each of the next two decades. A bit further east, I-355 was extended south from I-55 to I-80. In other words, the open land and easy access to Chicago and other nearby locations (major train lines, major highways) prompted the growth.

Hurricane Sandy made room for new McMansions in New Jersey communities?

Hurricane Sandy left a lot of destruction – and opportunities to construct new McMansions to replace older homes.

Long and many of her neighbors claim ostentatious monstrosities are changing the landscape of their modest and historic community, McLogan reported.

They accuse some of taking advantage of what Sandy wrought by raising and rebuilding their homes without any regard for the families next door — casting their smaller homes in shadow and gloom.

About 3,000 of Freeport’s 7,800 homes were damaged or destroyed in Sandy. New York Rising and the Federal Emergency Management Agency say rebuilding requires elevating homes at least a half-story from the street.

Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy is fielding calls from residents frustrated by the number of McMansions being built, but he said neighborhoods must be protected from the next big storm.

Hurricane Sandy didn’t just destroy homes; it may just lead to long-term transformations of dozens of neighborhoods and communities. This is an unusual situation compared to the typical teardown where a new owner buys a single home in a neighborhood, tears it down, and constructs a new large home with some different architectural features. When so many homes are destroyed so quickly, neighborhoods could change quite quickly, regardless of whether the new homes are McMansions, a negative term applied to these new big homes, or not.

In a typical case, a critical mass of teardown McMansions tends to lead to a group of residents appealing to local government to adopt some sort of regulations that limit the size and/or designs of new large teardowns. Yet, these processes take time and I assume there is a quick timeline for some of these homes to be rebuilt. How this plays out remains to be seen…

Should cities worry about “city-killer” asteroids?

Big cities around the world have plenty of problems to face without considering “city-killer” asteroids:

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… three to ten times more, in fact. A new visualization of data from a nuclear weapons warning network, to be unveiled by B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu during the evening event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, shows that “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.”

Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states:

“This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare—but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck. The goal of the B612 Sentinel mission is to find and track asteroids decades before they hit Earth, allowing us to easily deflect them.”

I assume the typical big city would claim this is a national or international problem rather than a problem single cities can tackle. American cities alone, while wealthy by global standards, would have a hard time finding resources and expertise to address this.

At the same time, shouldn’t major cities have plans in place for something like this? The planning might not be too different than planning for a possible nuclear bomb attack, the sort of attack in a place like New York City that keeps President Obama occupied. Given a few days or few hours of warning, what could be done? Or perhaps some of these strikes might simply be so large that cities can’t worry too much about one and just have to play the odds, particularly when compared to other possible issues like natural disasters or civil unrest which might happen more frequently.

Sociologist recommends designing libraries and community centers so people can use them in disasters

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg says more libraries, community centers, and other public spaces should be rethought and redesigned so that they could help people in times of crisis:

“Think about this: you’re in the midst of an extraordinary crisis, it’s so profound that the systems in your city have shut down. You don’t have power, you might not have water, you don’t have communications. Is that the moment you want to go into some strange, random public institution you’ve never spent time in before — one that’s likely to be overwhelmed by people with real needs and problems, and that might not be capable of giving you what you need. Or is that the moment you want to go a place that you feel comfortable in and familiar with, a place where you know the faces and are likely to see your a lot of your neighbors. It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Every neighborhood in this country should have a designated emergency safe space, and it will work well if its also a place that people use in their lives everyday, or every week. And if we can do that right, we can do something amazing. Not just protecting ourselves from the next crisis, but improving the quality of our lives and our communities all the time.”

And then speaking about a new design competition, Rebuild by Design:

Yeah. This is such an exciting competition. We had 148 design teams from around the world apply to come up with innovative solutions to deal with the threats of climate change, and there are 10 teams that are finalists that are doing their projects now.

I took them to the Red Hook Initiative because it’s an example of a community institution adapting its mission and changing the way its space worked during the crisis to become a relief operation. And they wound up serving thousands and thousands of people in that neighborhood because the staff knew the place well. Residents of the community felt very comfortable and at home there and because the design of the building allowed them to change the space according to the acute needs of that situation.

Klinenberg goes on to say that building resilient communities is important. Designing public buildings and spaces so that they can meet multiple needs could help a neighborhood or community get back on its feet quicker after a disaster. It would then be worth hearing more about what these redesigns could look like. How much different would a “resilient library” look?

It strikes me that pursuing this could be quite difficult in the suburbs. Because of the density of the city, it could be easier to find public spaces suitable to this task every so often. But, when people are more spread out and some suburban communities offer little in the way of public spaces, this would be harder.

Smokey the Bear is needed in urban areas like Chicago

Smokey the Bear is present on billboards in Chicago – and he is needed. According to the Chicago Tribune several days ago:

Helene Cleveland, fire prevention program manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said wildfires are more common in the Chicago area than people think…

Tom Wilson, forest protection program manager for Illinois, said a study by the Chicago Wilderness organization noted more than 1,500 wildfires from January 2005 to March 2011 in the six-county Chicago area.

There are plenty of houses adjacent to forests and grassland areas that have potential to catch fire, Wilson said.

Such a message might seem out of place in Chicago but there are plenty of urban areas that are more visibly affected by wildfires more frequently: Los Angeles and other cities in the American Southwest or the fires currently outside of Sydney, Australia. Chicago might not see fires like this but there is still plenty of open land near the metropolitan area or within it as part of forest preserves and other entities.

These Smokey the Bear billboards are also a reminder of the relationship between cities and nature. The average Chicago street  might appear to have little nature beyond a few trees and a few small animals. Yet, cities can’t quite get away completely from nature, whether it is dealing with wildfires, water and flooding issues, responding to natural disasters, or the limited exposure children have to the natural world in books.