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MEMA Home > Programs> Communication> News > Can I Get There From Here? Cumberland County Plans for Evacuations

Can I Get There From Here? Cumberland County Plans for Evacuations


April 20, 2008


Evacuating Maine’s most populated county in an emergency would be a challenging task. Since 2004, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency, together with the Greater Portland Council of Governments, has been working on comprehensive plans to take on that challenge.

“Greater Portland Council of Governments [GPCOG] has been the organization putting in the muscle and the backbone, turning our questions into usable data and recommendations,” Budway said. “GPCOG should be given a lot of credit for the incredible effort it has put into these plans,” he said.

The first phase of the effort evaluated traffic flow and evacuation routes in the Maine Mall area of South Portland. “There were some incidents in the region involving hazardous materials that occurred,” Budway said. “The question was asked, that if some incident were to occur in the vicinity, how would we evacuate the Mall?”

The Mall evacuation planning took 18 months, and focused on an area two and one-half miles around the Mall district. “That radius contained parts of four different towns,” Willauer said, “including Portland, South Portland, Westbrook and Scarborough.” A response to such an evacuation would involve law enforcement, fire and public works personnel from all four municipalities and the Maine State Police to organize the respective detours. “With all of these logistics, we devoted a whole chapter to the Incident Command System (ICS) of an emergency like this,” he said.

In the second phase of evacuation planning, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency (CCEMA) with GPCOG looked at the evacuation of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough in the event of a severe hurricane.

A turning point in the study was the Patriot’s Day storm of 2007. “That storm had a profound impact on southern Maine,” Willauer said. “The water levels came up, many municipalities lost power, there was a lot of wind, but we were able to effectively get all the players – from Public Works and the Red Cross to Central Maine Power and local fire departments -- to all work together in teams to respond during, and clean up after, the storm,” he said. Willauer said emergency planners learned a lot of hard lessons in that storm, and generated many questions to answer.

“How would we move these people? Would it be in their own vehicles, or would it be in school buses or public transportation? What would be the plan for emergency medical services? What would we do with our special needs populations?” Budway asked. “This study was in-depth and a thoughtful look at how we could answer these questions.”

South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough are at particular risk for hurricane damage because of their proximity to the ocean. “We needed to know what we are going to have for tidal problems and storm surge,” Budway said. “We needed to figure out who might need to be evacuated, and by what means,” he said. Research identified some shelters that had been planned for emergency use but could, in fact, be inundated with water. “We needed to do some more thoughtful work on where we would put people,” he said.

Willauer and his team use SLOSH maps (Sea, Lake and Overland Surge from Hurricanes) developed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which illustrate water levels and flooding in a Category One, Two or Three storm. “We were looking at these maps, and then we had the Patriot’s Day storm, and sure enough, that is where the water went,” Willauer said. “We saw the sea level rise, and flooding in areas that compromised a couple of critical roads in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland,” he said.

Budway agreed that the Patriot’s Day storm provided much useful information. “We learned that some of the heavily trafficked routes that people use to get home, to school or to work are going to be under water,” Budway said. “There are certain elements of the population – homes -- that are actually going to be cut off from evacuation if something like this were to come,” he said. “We found that we need to do some evacuation in advance of the problem so that these areas are clear.”

The hurricane evacuation study developed a number of recommendations and proposed topics communities need to consider in furthering planning. “What if these emergencies came in the middle of the summer or on Black Friday, the post-Thanksgiving most important shopping day of the year?” Budway asked. “It really whets our appetites on how we would respond in these particular situations.”

Phase three of the evacuation study has recently begun. “We are going to look at, given the hurricane scenario used in the phase two study, how we would evacuate the City of Portland,” Budway said. “But that said, this is not just a Portland-centric evacuation study,” he said. “Say we had another fire in the western part of the county, like the one in 1947, people could evacuate into Portland with guidance from the same plan.”

Through the process, emergency planners have realized it takes more than just government to create comprehensive, practical plans. Organizations outside of government have also become involved in the process. “The Red Cross has been very helpful in working with us,” Budway said. “We’re rediscovering what organizations like theirs have known all along, that we have got to have a solid plan,” he said.

Outside involvement is critical to the success of planning efforts. “The best plans come together when you have the most people thinking in the same direction and cooperating with each other, bringing a variety of expertise together,” Budway said.

That outside participation among local stakeholders – from police and fire personnel, to municipal and school officials – has been strong. “We always get great turnout and great ideas,” he said.

Phase three, the Portland evacuation study, will likely run through the end of this calendar year.

The efforts in Cumberland County will continue well into the future. “I do not know what the future of evacuation planning holds,” Budway said, “but I know that there is a lot of work that will need to be done at the county and local levels to bring it to fruition,” he said.

—Derek Mitchell



Cumberland County EMA


Last update: 07/20/10