P!Npoints: Where to go When There’s No Place Called Home

P!Npoints: Where to go When There’s No Place Called Home

HRS Winner Jessica Alvey investigates storm transit and shelter for the homeless in three U.S. cities

When a potentially catastrophic storm approaches the shores of southeastern U.S. cities, emergency management personnel must consider how to ensure safe passage of thousands of residents from vulnerable areas of their cities. Three cities – Miami, Savannah, Ga., and New Orleans, each face the daunting yet extremely important task of transporting their homeless populations in the event of a mandatory hurricane evacuation. While each of the cities has plans in place for those lacking their own transportation, their methods differ.

For instance, in Miami, Mike Pimentel, administration officer of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, says the January 2010 Homeless Census showed an 11 percent decrease in the city’s homeless population. Still, that leaves some 3,832 individuals to care for in case of a storm. Nearly 500 miles north, in Savannah, Joan Baczynski of Union Mission Inc. quotes the city’s homeless population at 4,700. In the Gulf Coast hub of New Orleans, Unity, an umbrella group that unites city shelters, says 11,500 New Orleans residents lack shelter (New Orleans’ homeless population nearly doubled after Hurricane Katrina).

“Between the coastal cities of Miami, Savannah, and New Orleans, there are over 20,000 homeless. This population needs special transit and shelter support in the event of a storm.”
-Jessica Alvey

In the case of an approaching storm, all three cities make use of the bus systems to provide transportation to the homeless and other citizens who have none. Take for example the Miami Department of Emergency Management, which has 124 “Emergency Evacuation Bus Pick-Up Sites” throughout the Miami- Dade area. Buses at those sites bring passengers to hurricane evacuation centers that have met strict structural codes to be deemed safe enough to serve as storm shelters. The city also has an 800 number with three language options that can be called to arrange pick-up by evacuation and emergency outreach teams, alerting individuals about the coming storm and gathering them for an evacuation. Finally, every year, all Miami-Dade shelters must submit a disaster plan for approval by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust in order to receive funding. This insures that plans remain current.

“The community and the private sector are also a big help in evacuation and care for vulnerable populations,” said Mike Pimental, administration officer for the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

North of Miami, Savannah uses a portion of metro, public and school buses to pick up citizens in need of transportation and shuttle them to the Savannah Civic Center before a storm. From the Civic Center, buses transport people inland to shelters in locations such as Augusta, Ga. Matthew Stanley of the Chatham Emergency Management Agency in Savannah said that the system is able to support up to 6,000 citizens, and was last used in 1999. Stanley said that the successful evacuations of homeless groups depend on cooperation with local homeless shelters. For example, Savannah’s Union Mission Inc. teams with the city during evacuations to give sack lunches to those without transportation.

In contrast to transit systems for the homeless in Miami and Savannah, New Orleans buses are owned by private companies. Thus, each year, new agreements concerning emergency management must be negotiated.

Colonel Sneed, director of the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness said of their plan, “It worked during Gustav … [Furthermore] New Orleans is the only city in the nation that has performed a total evacuation of its citizens [before Hurricane Gustav].”

Part of that success, said the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness, is due to the fact that in the event of an evacuation, all local transport is mobilized to get people out: buses, trains and planes. Transport to shelters inside and outside of the parish is announced via radio and television, and residents are evacuated outside of the state for the larger storms.

Jennifer Panitch of New Orleans’s Covenant House shelter said her shelter is one of the city-sponsored drops for the evacuation bus system. “Unlike the time before Katrina, the new City plan definitely works,” she said.