A year after a massive typhoon swept through the Philippines, Pope Francis held a service in Manilla this past January in front of more than six million attendees to remember the thousands who were killed. It was storming again that day, and people wearing plastic covers held candles as the rain drenched them and strong winds blew. The Pontiff himself wore a yellow poncho, and the mass went on.
Weather in Philadelphia can be a bit more predictable than that in the islands of the Philippines. But the Pope’s end-of-September visit to the city will still fall in hurricane season, and there’s always the possibility that rain could come, or worse: strong winds and inclement weather that could prove unsafe for attendees.
So what happens if there’s a storm?
The Archdiocese will be responsible for protecting the Pope, but the city will have to get proper messaging out to the potential two million people who could be in a small area of the city, especially if dangerous weather hits before or during the papal mass on the Sunday afternoon of the visit.
Samantha Phillips, director of the Office of Emergency Management for the City of Philadelphia, said conversations about what do if bad weather hits the Parkway “have been taking place for years” as the number of large, special events that take place on the busy Philly stretch increase every year.
For instance, OEM has emergency plans in place for events like Welcome America (the giant Fourth of July event on the Parkway each year), and for Made in America, the concert curated by Jay Z that was evacuated and shut down for several hours last year because of dangerous weather in the area.
“We learned so much from just trying to encourage 55,000 to 60,000 people to leave a Jay Z concert last year,” Phillips said. “People don’t want to go.”
She said OEM will start closely monitoring the weather patterns and having close communications with the National Weather Service about 10 days out from the papal visit to prepare for what could be in the pipeline. The office will also be in close contact with state and national partners like FEMA and the Secret Service, so that if inclement weather is on its way, decision-makers can gather to discuss options.
If it’s simply raining and the mass goes on, Phillips said she “highly suspects” that umbrellas won’t be allowed because of safety and visibility concerns. If there’s any chance of rain, bring a poncho.
So when hundreds of thousands of people gather on the Parkway for the papal mass, the city will have already set up a number of jumbotrons that will have messages on them and, in the case of a need for evacuation, will display messages telling people to vacate the area and seek shelter, whether it’s because lightning or wind is threatening the area.
Phillips said OEM doesn’t have a specific formula for when to call an evacuation and when not to, but if lightning is striking within a few miles of the events or wind could knock over poles or structures, the office will evaluate asking people to leave.
From there, people will be either ushered into safe spaces or can find them on their own. But where do you put two million people seeking shelter? Phillips said many will crowd into hotels, parking garages and SEPTA for safety, and OEM has had conversations with the Convention Center regarding opening its doors to provide shelter to thousands of people who would theoretically be seeking it.
But at the end of the day, OEM can’t force people to leave the Parkway or mandate any sort of evacuation. It can only recommend it.
Phillips offered the following tips for people traveling to the Parkway for Pope-related events so that the public can be well prepared for what could be to come:
- Have your cell phone charged, and bring along your charger. The city will have charging stations set up so that people can charge and be in contact with family and group members.
- Bring empty water bottles to fill up on the Parkway, and be sure to check beforehand about what items are allowed in and what items aren’t.
- Sign up for OEM’s emergency text alerts and follow them on social media to keep up-to-date on what’s happening.
- Use the Parkway’s public safety grid, and coordinate with your group ahead of time about which grid location you’ll meet at in the case of severe weather (i.e.: meet at H2 or G7). The letter/ number combinations can be found on flags on the Parkway.
- Find other preparedness tips on OEM’s website at phila.gov/ready.