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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - September/October 2004

Guest Editorial

Preparing for the Unexpected

by Author


The transportation network is an integral part of American life. It contributes to our national connectivity and prosperity, supporting work and leisure activities and providing for the delivery of essential services during emergencies. The events on September 11, 2001, and those highlighted in this issue of PUBLIC ROADS serve as reminders that the Nation needs to be ready for unexpected emergencies.

The very nature of emergencies is that they are unpredictable and chaotic, harboring the possibility of injuries, property damage, and sometimes death. Panic can erupt. Depending on the circumstances, fast thinking and flexibility are necessary. But even more critical is the development and testing of response plans that help guide decisions in a host of emergency situations.

In the past year, the transportation community has responded to several large-scale emergencies related to weather, power, seismic, and chemical events. Most agencies are prepared for brief road closures and small-scale emergencies, but how equipped is your agency to handle a major disaster? How would you handle a chemical explosion that shuts down a main artery during rush hour? What contingencies do you have if a power outage closes down your traffic control devices, transit system, or other key infrastructure?

Planning and preparing for a problem or emergency before it happens potentially makes response quicker and smoother.

The 2003 blackout that affected seven States underscores the importance of emergency planning when the transportation grid is dark. The cities affected by the blackout share their experiences and how they handled the crisis in "Learning from the 2003 Blackout". Another article, "I–95 Shutdown—Coordinating Transportation and Emergency Response", highlights Maryland's response to a tanker truck explosion on I–95 just before rush hour on January 13, 2004. The authors discuss agency response, command structure, alternate routing, and the efforts made to keep traffic moving in this major north-south interstate corridor.

As States expand their emergency response plans to address unexpected events, the challenges will be numerous: coordinating multiple-agency response with the possibility of involving new players; setting up a command structure; considering how to respond if the event is deemed a terrorist attack; and exercising flexibility in dealing with atypical situations. Some elements to consider include the need to handle large evacuations while providing access for emergency response units and supplies, providing a means to meet internal and public information needs when the communication infrastructure is damaged, coordinating with a military response in the appropriate situation, and responding without key resources like electrical power.

The transportation community may not be able to prepare for every contingency, but we need to have a basic plan, conduct exercises to test and enhance that plan, and then begin to address some of the extreme conditions discussed in these articles. Are you ready?

John A. Gerner

Program Manager for

Transportation Security

Office of the Administrator

Federal Highway Administration