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Published:October 7th, 2005 05:33 EST
Necessary Precaution Or Unnecessary Risk: Philadelphians Are Denied Evacuation Plans

Necessary Precaution Or Unnecessary Risk: Philadelphians Are Denied Evacuation Plans

By Maria Marchisello

Do you know your city's plans for evacuation in an emergency? The residents of Philadelphia do not. City officials are keeping Philadelphia's evacuation plans confidential to protect them from the prying eyes of terrorists. Unfortunately, the plans are also being kept from the prying eyes of Philadelphia's 1.5 million innocent citizens. Is this action by city officials a necessary precaution? Or is it a prescription for chaos?

Philadelphia, America’s “City of Brotherly Love,” provokes many lovely connotations at the mere mention of its name. Throughout the country and around the world, people often imagine soft pretzels, The Liberty Bell, The Eagles, Will Smith, Live 8 and of course, Rocky Balboa’s triumphant run up the steps of the Museum of Art when they hear Philadelphia’s name. Countless memories are made there everyday, and to think what it would be like if this great city no longer existed is heart stopping.


Disasters, be they the result of the forces of nature or the handiwork of man, are a threat to cities everywhere. The most metropolitan of areas and the quaintest of towns are all vulnerable, and Philadelphia is no exception. With a population of approximately 1.5 million people, the potential for destruction and tragedy should a disaster strike the city is almost incomprehensible. Considering the sad fact that catastrophes happen, with or without warning, one would expect Philadelphia officials to have an effective plan for the evacuation of the city readily available to its citizens. As it turns out, this is expecting too much. When it comes to such vital information, the citizens of Philadelphia are being kept in the dark.


This is a disconcerting revelation, made all the more disturbing by the fact that the coordination of evacuations falls under the command of Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for transportation—a position that has not been filled since 1999. To say that organizing the evacuation of Philadelphia would be a difficult task could easily qualify as the understatement of the year. Uprooting over a million people requires impeccable detail and organization, the first step of which needs to be adequate communication between officials and evacuees. With the keeping of these plans from its inhabitants, Philadelphia is being done a great disservice. How more unprepared could a city possibly be?


In response to queries, Philadelphia city officials are claiming that there is a method to their madness. It has been admitted that the city’s 139 page evacuation plan is currently being kept confidential due to fears of what could happen should it fall into the wrong hands. Such reasoning is understandable, though not particularly excusable. It also does not explain why neighboring New Jersey has visible road signs noting routes for evacuation, but Philadelphia does not. Nor does it explain why the information found on the city’s website ( is disarmingly sparse and devoid of any significant detail. Of course, what information is there to give when the bulk of it is confidential?


Granted, some may be wondering why there is such fuss in the first place. Philadelphia is not below sea-level, nor does it lie on a fault line. What natural catastrophes pose threats? What are the odds of a terrorist attack? What could cripple rough-and-tumble Philly? The answer is plenty.


While no hurricane has decimated Philadelphia in recent memory, research suggests that a Category 3 storm striking the New Jersey shore could send destruction up through the Delaware Bay. With it could come 100 mph winds, consequent damage to bridges and highways, and the potential for the city’s South Philadelphia section to be covered by 10 feet of water. Another possible source of trouble can be found in the city’s refineries. A spill could create a plume of poison gas that extends up to 25 miles across the area, with the situation’s full potential for injury dependant upon the wind’s direction and speed. Finally, the threat of terrorism must be given serious consideration. The city is home to an extensive underground railway system, and the truth is that the July attacks on London could just as easily have happened in Philadelphia. Another Achilles’ Heel is the Delaware River, a heavily traveled channel of commerce. Philadelphia is the largest petrochemical port on the East Coast, with innumerable possibilities for maritime problems. The bottom line is this: Philadelphia is at risk, and its citizens deserve every opportunity to prepare themselves.


The loopholes are plentiful where the city’s emergency preparedness is concerned, but thanks to both the aftermath of Katrina and the public out-cry, efforts are being made to correct them. The issues of communication errors, funding and medical readiness are all currently being addressed. Yet, the key issue of whether the city’s evacuation plans will eventually be made public remains to be seen. Local councilman Frank Rizzo is leading a push to make this so, while mayor John Street recently formed a committee to review Philadelphia’s disaster plans.


How well a city is prepared for disaster is the result of a partnership between both a city’s officials and its citizens. With the information provided by those in charge, citizens can be sure that they are adequately equipped to handle the situations that could arise. This very moment, in the City of Brotherly Love, the potential for chaos is far greater than anyone should accept. One never knows what tomorrow may bring— and Philadelphia’s lack of emergency preparedness could be the city’s worst disaster of all.