AIKEN - More people fled their homes after the Jan. 6 Graniteville train wreck and chlorine leak than were asked to, according to a recently published study of the evacuation.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina surveyed more than 500 people: about 300 who lived within the one-mile mandatory evacuation zone around the crash site; and about 215 who lived between one and two miles away, said Susan Cutter, the director of the geography department's Hazardous Research Lab.
As researchers expected, 98 percent of those interviewed who lived within the evacuation zone fled their homes as directed, the report shows. However, 59 percent of the respondents who lived outside the evacuation zone also said they evacuated, a trend the report refers to as an "evacuation shadow."
"An optimistic view of the evacuation shadow would observe that with more evacuees fewer casualties would result," the report states. "While possibly true, the evacuation shadow presents a number of harmful consequences."
Among possible unintended consequences listed in the report: increased traffic volume that slows the evacuation time; people who actually need to evacuate but aren't able to because of those who overreacted; lack of shelter for evacuees.
Little of that was reported during the Graniteville evacuation. And Dr. Cutter said the study sought to understand evacuee behavior, not judge how local officials responded.
"We're trying to get the word out," she said. "We're trying to get people to better understand evacuation behavior."
Before being told to evacuate, residents closest to the crash site were told to shelter within their homes to avoid chlorine exposure, a move Dr. Cutter said probably saved lives.
In all, nine people died from chlorine exposure and hundreds more sought medical attention.
Still, she said, there are lessons to be learned from the evacuation.
For example, researchers asked respondents how they found out about the chlorine release and how they were alerted to evacuate.
Of those within the one-mile evacuation zone, 83 percent reported receiving some sort of message to leave. The largest group, 35 percent, said they were told by police to leave, followed by 26 percent, who said they learned of the evacuation by way of television reports.
Authorities also used an emergency calling system that telephoned people within the evacuation zone.
Almost 13 percent of those surveyed within a mile of the accident reported learning of the evacuation through this method, while others within the evacuation zone said they did not receive the call.
Furthermore, some people outside the evacuation zone reported being told to evacuate by phone.
Of respondents who lived in the mile outside the evacuation zone, 54 percent reported being told to evacuate, 26 percent of whom said that warning came by way of the telephone system.
"These systems' errors must be investigated," the report states. "Additionally, the problem of reaching people with telephone lines remains, especially given the ubiquitous nature of cell phones."
Among other findings, the report listed respondents who were confused and uncertain whether they should evacuate, along with respondents who said they didn't know which way the chlorine was going.
In regard to the emergency calling operation, Phil Clarke, the Aiken County EMS coordinator, said the system called telephone numbers listed within one mile of the crash site.
"We're in the process of updating those databases," he added.
Lt. Michael Frank of the Aiken County Sheriff's Office said officials might consider listing street names in the future.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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