MTI Newsletter Vol 17, Issue 2: Spring 2011

MTI’s NTSCOE Preparing for Disaster-Resilient Transportation

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina blew ashore at New Orleans and crumbled its levees, inundating the city for days. Critical infrastructure components from electrical transmission to interstate highways, from cell towers to bridges were destroyed. A lasting image is the cluster of people marooned on a freeway overpass, awaiting rescue.

But rescue was slowed by the loss of government services at the local level, as first responders were victims, and the National Guard was in a flooded armory. Along the Mississippi coast, in Alabama, Florida and Texas, critical infrastructure damage was the legacy of Katrina’s passage as it created destruction in an area the size of England. The loss of freeway bridges and road surfaces created unreachable victims in small coastal areas like Waveland, Mississippi, and left East New Orleans inaccessible.

All disasters are local. The U.S. Constitution forbids federal authorities from entering a state without the request of the governor or legislature unless the Catastrophic Annex of the National Response Framework is invoked. The Department of Homeland Security has partnered with local and state governments to improve their Continuity of Government (COG) and Continuity of Operations (COOP) capabilities to avoid such catastrophic consequences in future events. To address this issue in California, the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Security Center of Excellence (NTSCOE) researchers have partnered with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to train staff and update plans to ensure a rapid and organized response to future disasters.

California has been called “America’s disaster theme park.” Tsunami damage from the Japanese earthquake is the latest challenge to the state’s highway infrastructure. Two other recent examples include a 40-vehicle fatal accident caused by rain unexpectedly turning to snow, and a freeway overpass destroyed by a tanker truck fire. These no-notice events required uninterrupted response by Caltrans.

To enhance Caltrans’ internal emergency response capabilities that support field response to the public, NTSCOE staff is providing Incident Command System/National Incident Management System (ICS/NIMS) introductory training, and an eight-hour scenario-based emergency operations center (EOC) course. This training is intended to ensure that Caltrans has a robust basis for emergency response to any event.

Caltrans’ COOP/COG plan was written in 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, with an emphasis on its information technology needs. Over the past several years, exercises and real events have demonstrated the need to better document the role of the Emergency Relocation Group (ERG), the interface between the EOC and the alternate facility where essential functions are maintained, and the role of the Caltrans headquarters in delivering emergency response services in the field while also supporting the Governor’s Office and other executive functions of state government.

NTSCOE’s researchers have updated the threat assessment on which emergency planning is based, worked with Caltrans staff to better document interfaces, researched ERG responsibilities, looked for best practices, and developed transportation department-specific COOP training for the ERG members. Over the next several months, they will facilitate a tabletop exercise for the ERG members to refine their checklists and procedures, and complete a template COOP plan for a state level transportation agency that includes ERG materials. The research report will include chapters on their research on the role of a state level transportation agency COOP/COG program, the interface between the EOC and the COOP alternate site, and ERG staffing, development and deployment.

The lessons of Katrina were cautionary, leading to a reinvigoration of the COOP/COG program. The lessons of the recent Japanese tsunami, including their rapid debris removal and road access development, reinforce the importance of planning and training. Keeping the roads open - even in a disaster- is a critical emergency response element for any community. Caltrans COOP/COG program, facilitated by NTSCOE researchers, is designed to ensure that California roads will be open to support the rapid response to any disaster.

Related materials by Dr. Frances Edwards are free for downloading in PDF format: