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Transit in Emergencies: 'Matter of Life and Death'

“Transit, we have learned, can be absolutely critical in an emergency—a matter of life and death.”

FTA Acting Administrator Jane Williams described the role of public transportation in rescuing residents from the onslaught of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the ongoing work after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, as part of “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty, Managing Emergencies,” an educational session during the APTA Annual Meeting.

In addition to describing FTA’s response to Hurricane Harvey’s assault on parts of Texas and Louisiana, followed by Hurricane Irma striking Florida and later Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, Williams emphasized that local agencies’ efforts “spotlighted transit in a totally different way.” She said agencies including Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) evacuated more than 50,000 victims of Harvey, while other agencies rescued close to 40,000 people during Irma.

Regarding Maria, she said, “It’s a lot more challenging when we’re dealing with an island.” She emphasized that the “incredibly important effort” will continue because “it’s what we do each day.”

Thomas Lambert, METRO president & chief executive officer and moderator of the session, said Williams was the first person to contact him after Harvey struck Houston. “We can never know when or where an emergency may hit,” he said, pointing to other natural and man-made disasters that can affect both communities and their public transit operations.

Lt. Aston Greene, commander of the Emergency Preparedness Unit of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), reported on the agency’s response when a piece of a bridge on I-85 collapsed, stranding cars and people. He described the unit’s “all-hazards approach,” with plans that can apply to severe weather or terrorist attacks as well as road emergencies, and emphasized the importance of building relationships with other agencies ready to provide support if needed.

During the shutdown of the bridge, he said, MARTA’s ridership jumped 73 percent and the agency’s ontime rail performance peaked at 99.5 percent. The agency used $150,000 of its reserve funds to add service during the first two weeks after the collapse, he added.

“There will always be a gap between emergency training and an actual event,” Greene said, “which is why we need a culture of preparedness.”

Panelists, from left: FTA Acting Administrator Jane Williams, moderator Thomas Lambert, Aston Greene, Christopher White, Blake Whitson and Alexa Dupigny-Samuels.

Photo by Mitchell Wood

Christopher White of FTA Region 4 described the FTA Emergency Relief Program, noting that transportation is at the top of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s emergency support priorities. He said a national-level emergency exercise is scheduled next year.

Blake Whitson of the Center for Transportation and the Environment spoke about his organization’s work, with the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics and a consulting firm, to develop a Bus Exportable Power Supply (BEPS) System that will give hybrid buses the capability to act as on-demand, mobile electrical-power generators that can be deployed in emergency disaster response and recovery situations. Funding for this project came from FTA’s Innovative Safety, Resiliency, and All-Hazards Emergency Response and Recovery Demonstrations program.

Alexa Dupigny-Samuels, emergency management manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), described the many parts of the agency’s emergency preparedness program. For example, WMATA has established collaborative relationships with fire departments in nine jurisdictions, and the agency trains fire liaisons who can communicate with responders.

BAE Systems sponsored the session.
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