Would Chicagoans Ever Have to Evacuate the City?

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At the time when this article goes live, Hurricane Florence will be smacking the Carolinas around. A lot of news coverage this week has focused on evacuating the coastal areas in preparation for the coming storm. Events like this tend to nudge our thoughts towards our own disaster plans even if we live very far from the epicenter. Residents of Chicago should certainly always have a plan for getting out of their buildings in the case of localized disasters like fires. But as I watched the Florence coverage this week I started to wonder if there would ever be a scenario where I would have to get out of Chicago quickly in anticipation of a major catastrophe.

As a developer, scope creep is something that's always lurking in the back of my mind. That's the tech term used to describe a project that keeps growing out of control due to small requests from clients or creative bursts. I do like to have plans in place for responding to catastrophes. But I don't want my emergency plans to be so extensive that I wind up spending money or stressing out over disasters that will never actually happen.

After doing some research and contemplating the types of disasters that could befall the city, I have come to the conclusion that my own emergency plans should not involve rapid, long-term evacuation. However, I live about 10 miles outside of the loop. But in my opinion even Loop residents can most likely keep the thought of a citywide evacuation pretty far down on the list for contingency planning. Let's look at the reasons why.

Time Required to Evacuate

Chicago's emergency planners have stated that the highways can hold about 160,000 people. There are about 650,000 people living in the downtown area. This means that if downtown has to get out, nobody on the outskirts is going anywhere.

When Houston residents evacuated in preparation for Hurricane Rita it took about 24 hours and there were a whole lot of deaths along the way, most due to car accidents. So it stands to reason that if a disaster were to occur with less than 24 hours notice there is no way most of us would be getting out in time.

Disasters That Could Hit Chicago

Here in Chicago we don't see a lot of the major storms that plague the coastal regions. We don't get hurricanes, dust storms or typhoons. The Great Lakes are landlocked, so rising ocean levels won't touch us here. They do see some tsunamis but the damage is mostly restricted to the waterfront. So what could cause evacuation-caliber trouble around here?

Blizzards Yes, we get blizzards and they'll probably get more severe over time if the climate studies are accurate. But this is a city that is fully prepared for snow. The only evacuations I could find for blizzards were in a coastal section of Massachusetts, which is a far different setting than Chicago.

Earthquakes The New Madrid Seismic Zone is relatively close to Chicago. While it has been mostly quiet for the past 150 years there are occasional tremors. Seismologists have trouble understanding what's going on with it, with some camps saying it's a dead fault and others saying there's anywhere from 10-40% chance of a large quake within the next 50 years. Given the level of uncertainty it is my thought that we would either have less than 24 hours notice of a major New Madrid quake, making an evacuation impossible.

Derecho/Flooding Severe thunderstorms that cause flash flooding are the most likely disaster that would hit Chicago. But they arrive quickly, abate quickly, and are not likely to cause such severe damage that an evacuation would be required.

Tornado The south and west suburbs tend to see quite a few tornadoes. They very rarely make it into the city. But like earthquakes and severe rain they appear so suddenly that there would be no time to evacuate.

Nuclear Meltdown Alright, now we're finally getting into evacuation territory. There are three nuclear power plants within 100 miles of Chicago: Byron, Dresden and Braidwood. If any of those three were to "go boom," we would definitely want to be elsewhere as quickly as possible. But in that case it would not be just the city, but the entire northern third of the state that would be affected. In a situation like this we're not looking at a temporary evacuation. We're looking at a permanent relocation to another area of the country.

Terrorism This is the one that comes up in most of the articles discussing evacuation-grade disasters in Chicago. Should a dirty bomb go off downtown the damage would be massive, as much from the actions of panicked residents as from the bomb itself. But emergency planners have stated that the actual fallout would most likely dissipate within 24 hours and the best plan for the majority would be to shelter in place during that period.

Structuring Your Plans

Given all of the above, the chances of a disaster hitting Chicago with enough severity to make an evacuation viable and enough advance notice to make it possible are pretty much non-existent. There are a few situations that would require us to get out but we would be looking at large scale permanent relocations.

If you're going to have to evacuate it will most likely be due to a very localized event that affects only your house or your neighborhood. Your "evacuation" could be to a local hotel or a friend's house, but you won't have to leave the city.

So when making your emergency plans, figure out how you'll get out of the building or away from your block. Set a meeting place nearby and discuss how you'll communicate with your family and roommates. Have a "bug out bag" with your valuables and important documents, and a way to remove pets from dangerous situations. But you don't need to worry about leaving the city in a hurry.

Published by

Kay Cleaves