Disaster Evacuation Planning in the Tourism Industry
By Thomas E. Drabek, Ph.D
Recent natural disasters remind us of the fragility of human life. Failure to implement effective warning and evacuation systems brings death, injury, and trauma when natures forces behave unexpectedly.
While costly, the benefits of such systems become obvious when hurricanes like Andrew, or his siblingsremember Bob, Hugo, Gilbert and Gloriaunleash their fury. Years of social science research, continual pressure from progressive local governments, and initiatives by various federal and state agencies, have increased our nations response capacity. Thousands of Americans are spared death or injury every year when floods, hurricanes, forest fires, volcanoes, toxic substance accidents, or other events occur.
Gaps remain, however. Hurricanes Hugo and Gilbert both fingered the tourism industry. Overlooked by researchers and ignored by most emergency managers, many tourists were shocked to discover their plight when these two monster storms headed toward our coastline in 1988 and 1989 respectively. As Hurricane Bob brushed the eastern seaboard during mid-August, 1991, thousands of tourists wondered. Should they put their vacation plans aside and run for cover? How much risk could there be?
When I witnessed stories of fear and uncertainty, I was reminded of an earlier decade, another location. In 1976, 139 people died in the Big Thompson Canyon area about 75 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado. Hundreds of tourists were vacationing in or near this area which sits below the village of Estes Park and the main entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park. Literally thousands of families were alarmed upon receiving initial media reports. Were their relatives or friends among the dead or injured?
Exploration of this vulnerability has been initiated. Results from the first of several anticipated surveys have brought important insightsboth good and bad news. To obtain a fix on preparedness levels within the industry, three exemplary tourist com-munities were selected for in-depth study (see boxed insert). A sample of firms providing tourist services was obtained, i.e., lodging (25), restaurant (16), travel (5), or entertainment, including retail (19). Most were specialized, but many were multifunctional, e.g., large hotels.
Two of the three communities are hurricane prone, i.e., Pinellas County and Galveston. Indeed, the largest evacuation involving elderly and others requiring medical care in U.S.A. history occurred in Pinellas County prior to Hurricane Elena in 1985. Since the historic hurricane of 1900 in which 6,000 died, Galveston Island has been visited regularly by monster storms. Most recently, the entire island was evacuated when its well preparedand by reputation, very caringcity manager, Mr. Doug Mathews, confronted the computer plots depicting the probable path of Hurricane Gilbert, a storm with the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded.
The third site is an area with a long history of flash flooding. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, sits at a major entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, and within Pigeon Forge and Sevierville which also are threatened by the Little Pigeon River, 60,000 tourists daily enjoy varied pleasures including a major country music theme park. Business executives throughout this scenic valley described several minor floods that occurred within the past two years. Few, however, are cognizant of the massive watershed that has concerned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) officials and area emergency managers. They recognize the true vulnerability of this tourist mecca and have encouraged local interest in warning and evacuation initiatives.
Extent of Planning
Given these vulnerabilities, what disaster evacuation planning has occurred within the private sector? What have executives responsible for tourist-oriented businesses done to protect their firms, employees, and customers who might just happen to be there on the wrong day?
My interviews revealed that local government initiatives had a positive impact, albeit limited. Previous disasters, many of which had precipitated partial or complete evacuations, were instructive too. As stimulants, actual disasters carried more weight than government planning initiatives. But their instructional value was limited and of-ten counterproductive. Indeed, near misses, like events that produce minor impacts, feed attitudes of denial and invulnerability. These are the culprits! If you own or manage a tourist business, beware.
There is good news. Nearly all (91 %) of the 65 business executives interviewed had initiated some type of disaster evacuation planning. Nationally, I suspect this repre-sents the extreme high end of the continuum. What is it in your community? What was it in the last place you vacationed? How safe were you and your family?
Nine Planning Criteria
The bad news arose when I probed. Nine criteria were used to assess the extent of disaster evacuation planning. While the glass had some water, so to speak, it was far from being full. The data registered many glaring vulnerabilities even within these three exemplary communities that were known nationally for their private sector planning initiatives.
1. Written plan. Although most of these executives had done some disaster evacuation planning for their firm, only one-half had put anything in writing. Detailed review of these is in process, but many had obvious shortcomings. Most conspicuous was a single hazard focus. If evacuation was required for events other than hurricanes, aspects of the plans were irrelevant.
2. Informal planning. Prior events had stimulated general discussions about fu-ture threats. While they had nothing written, nearly one-half (47%) of these executives described discussions they had had with employees regarding evacuation procedures. Nearly always these were focussed on a single hazard such as hurricanes or floods.
Since some of the businesses were small19 percent had fewer than 15 full-time employeesinformality defined the organizational culture. Initially, I figured that disaster evacuation planning was no exception. Sure enough, 70 percent of the small firms did not have anything in writing pertaining to disaster evacuation. In contrast, all but one of the firms with 100 or more employees had written disaster evacuation plans of some type. But only one-half of the other firms did, i.e., 16-99 employees.
3. Functional approach. Regardless of the level of government or the political persuasion of emergency managers involved in public sector planning, a functional approach is accepted widely. This means that plans for evacuation, like all other basic functions, should be multihazard and rooted within the full life cycle of any disaster, i.e., preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. Again, only one-half of the executives passed. If confronted with something other than a hurricaneor a flood among the Tennessee executivesthey were without a plan.
4. Property specific. While the pass rate was much higher than on the first three criteria, a significant proportion (17%) revealed that their plans were not keyed to their specific property. Typically, these were written plans they had been given by an external executive, e.g., regional or corporate headquarters. Some executives had brought a plan from a previous job. While potentially helpful as guidance, without translation and further on-site implementation, these are just taking up space in file cabinets. When disaster strikes, they will be useless!
The unusually high pass rate on this criterion reflected the fact that informal planning often was property specific. That is, when business owners discussed prior disasters with their employees they talked in terms of this specific business location.
5. Revision annually. Turnover is notoriously high within the tourist industry. Vulnerabilities, physical plant, transportation routes, and the like, change rapidly espe-cially in high growth areas like these three locations. Yet, over one-half (54%) of these executives admitted that they had not revised their disaster evacuation plan during the previous year. Even among those that had, annual revision was not commonly practiced.
6. Regular staff training. A broad definition of regular staff training was ac-cepted. Yet, over one-half (52%) indicated that firm employees did not receive it.
7. Annual exercise. Only nine of these executives (14%) indicated that annual exercises were held. Of course, many proposed that prior disaster threats alleviated the need for exercises. Given the degree of implementation of their disaster evacuation planning, however, this is a weak excuse at best.
8. Planning process emphasis. Disaster preparedness plans must be designed by those who are going to implement them if they are to be effective. A plan designed exclusively by the head of the security divisioneven if it is signed off on by senior management and circulated to every employeewill not work. Nearly one-half (45 %) of these executives emphasized that they had adopted a team approach to maximize participation. Of course, that means that slightly over one-half (55 %) of these firms are vulnerable!
9. Corporate and CEO commitment. Most interviewees (69%) owned the firm or were the CEO. Obviously, statements of commitment must be put into a context of policies and practices. Yet, over one-half (54%) readily acknowledged that disaster evacuation planning had little, if any, priority. Interestingly, many took notes during my interviews and remarked that the probings had opened their eyes a bit. What is the level of commitment in your firm? Equally important, how would it score across these nine criteria? If a failing grade is the answer, whose job is it to take action?
Errors In Planning
These interviews revealed many common errors. Some are false assumptions; other represent unanticipated problems.
Most executives had not anticipated the potential for divided loyalties among employees whose homes were threatened. Only a few had explicit policies regarding time off. Rarely had information been communicated to employees. A significant proportion conveyed expectations of looting and described actions designed to curtail it. This was less pronounced in the Tennessee mountains where a rural life-style still encourages people to go to bed without locking their doors.
Written plans that have arrived from the outside must be transformed by those expected to implement them. If not, they prove to be useless when disaster strikes. Informality is a desirable trait which many want to maintain within their place of work.
Some even choose to sacrifice wages and other benefits so as to work in such firms. But even here, disaster evacuation plans will be more effective if they are written and reviewed with all employees.
Additionally, my interviews revealed two more serious gaps. First, a multi-hazard approach is essential. One-half had focused exclusively on a single hazard. If confronted with an accident involving a toxic substance, most indicated that they had no idea of what they would do. Second, only one-third (35%) had developed a link with local government. Typically, this was through the emergency management office. Often this link had its origins in a workshop on disaster evacuation planning. But such links can be initiated by private sector executives. Indeed, in other locations I have in-terviewed, emergency managers have described exactly that process. This job is too important and too large to be ignored. Often, government agency priorities reflect perceptions of interest. A discussion over lunch can get the ball rolling.
An Action Agenda
What steps are needed? My interviews with these executives, some of whom have done admirable jobs to protect their customers, employees, and their firm, sug-gested the following.
Increase awarenessask questions of those around you about the range of vulnerabilities confronting your firm.
Discuss plans with otherswhat is the quality of your firms disaster evacuation planning?
Advocate a team approacheach unit should design a plan that is reviewed by an overall committee that stimulates participation by those who will be required to implement.
Write it downeven within small firms, ideas for a general approach to evacuation will be clarified and have greater impact if they are written.
Commitment from the toprecognizing potential vulnerabilities and making plans for dealing with them is being recognized more widely with all facets of the private sector as being both ethically correct and economically prudent.
Link to local governmentprocedures for warning confirmation and rapid access to your firm after a disaster are but two of numerous specific issues that local authorities can assist with, aside from being an invaluable resource regarding community vulnerabilities and tips about the planning process.
Getting tourists backalthough disasters stimulate a short term influx of workers during reconstruction, many areas have discovered that media images of destruction make lasting imprints that may require strategic advertisement to bring tourists back.
Practice itdisaster evacuation plans that are not practiced will provide limited guidance when needed.
Thomas E. Drabek is professor of sociology at the University of Denver.
This article adapted from Vol. 6 #1.
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