How would Long Island be evacuated in an emergency?

How would Long Island be evacuated in an emergency? Credit: Newsday Photo Illustration / Ned Levine

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series in which Newsday attempts to answer questions from Long Islanders about life on the Island. If there’s a question you want us to answer, send it to us here.


How would Long Island be evacuated in an emergency?

The short answer: There is no formal plan. Officials have ideas and tactics that work on a smaller scale, but it is logistically complicated.

The long answer: Between traffic on the Long Island Expressway, bridge construction and signal troubles on the Long Island Rail Road, there’s no shortage of headache-inducing obstacles in trying to get off the Island.

But what if there were an emergency requiring evacuation?

As it turns out, evacuation tactics are pretty standard no matter where you are, said Craig Craft, commissioner of Nassau County’s Office of Emergency Management. And the tactics deployed are going to depend on the emergency.

“We’d have to pull the plug and make that decision days in advance,” he said.

Contraflow, the practice of shifting highways so all lanes move in the same direction would be a good option for an event such as superstorm Sandy, he said.

Another option, though not very efficient, would be to use ferries to move people across the Long Island Sound.

But even a storm like Sandy wasn’t enough to require evacuating the whole Island.

“What would be a reason that we would consider an evacuation of that magnitude? Maybe a Category 5 hurricane?” Craft said. “I could see us moving people to the center of the Island and taking over a lot of areas in the center as shelters.”

In the event of a terror attack or catastrophe that affects power or air quality, Craft said, officials would tell the public to shelter in place.

Part of the difficulty in coming up with a comprehensive evacuation plan is dealing with the size of the local population, officials said.

Long Island boasts about 3 million residents across Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to U.S. Census records. However, any event that requires an evacuation of Long Island would also likely affect New York City and its dense boroughs, which 8.5 million people call home.

So to move more than 11 million people, it would have to be a true emergency with lots of coordination, Craft said, and that definition is hard to pin down.

Fears about a lack of an evacuation plan helped doom the roughly $6 billion Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, which was officially decommissioned in 1994 after two decades of controversy over its safety.

In 1983, the Suffolk County Legislature determined the county could not safely and effectively evacuate its residents in the event of a nuclear disaster, marking the project’s decline.

Of course, people can always choose to self-evacuate. For some, a transportation breakdown could be enough to leave, said Chris Dowhie, owner of Plan B Marine. Plan B allows wealthy clients in Manhattan to purchase a very specific type of insurance policy — access to quick, safe water transport to the mainland.

Clients pay as much as $750 a month per person to have a private escape boat available. Plan B staff have trained clients on how to use the twin-engine, military-grade boats for the three-minute ride to New Jersey from Manhattan’s West Side and Dowhie said clients include diplomats, investment advisers and college students with concerned parents.

“Mass transit, power failure, any kind of event that’s going to delay you more than three, four hours from your commute,” Dowhie said. “It doesn’t have to be a 911 scenario or zombie apocalypse, it could be a generic inconvenience.”

The bottom line is that while you may want to leave Manhattan or Long Island, there’s little chance everyone will be asked to.

“There’s a lot of options out there, but the likelihood of doing an island evacuation is very slim,” Craft said.

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