Saturday, September 03, 2005

Avoiding the horror next time

Northeastern Pennsylvania is pretty damned far from New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast. We don't face the same sort of hazards they face. Still, we are not immune from disasters, and there are many conceivable scenarios where a mass evacuation would be necessary.

We have a large elderly population. We have a fair number of people who do not have their own transportation, ranging from the poor to students at several area colleges and universities. We have large numbers of people in hospitals at any given time. We have quite a few people who are drug addicts. We have several large prisons in the area. And we have many small, outlying communities located deep in the woods.

Is there a plan for evacuating these people?

In New Orleans those lacking their own transportation, including many elderly, were left to fend for themselves. People in hospitals were mainly left to die, or to watch in horror as their patients died - and then stick the corpses in stairwells because there was nowhere else to put them. The drug addicts, cut off from their supplies of drugs, became crazy bands of thugs who began looting pawn shops and gun shops for weapons and ammo (becoming crazy bands of armed thugs who shoot at evacuees and rescuers alike), hospitals and pharmacies for drugs, and, in an obvious failure to recognize the paradigm shift, electronics stores for televisions and stereos. Prisoners are being stored on broken bits of bridges. And those small, outlying communities that were devastated by the storm are watching in desperation as relief is channeled to large population centers like New Orleans.

What about here?

Much of this region's population lives near the Susquehanna River, which had a major flood in 1972, a semi-major flood in 1996, and smaller floods about every three to five years (including 2004). We are surrounded by vast and beautiful tracts of forest and the rolling lower mountains at the northeastern extent of the Appalachians (the "Ridge and Valley" part, anyway.)

We are vulnerable to several natural and man-made disasters: flooding (the 1972 flood was caused by Tropical Storm Agnes bringing heavy rain to upstate New York, which then flowed into Pennsylvania and finally out to the Chesapeake Bay), forest fires (major forest fires are rare due in part to the wetness of our forests, but in times of drought that can change), crippling snow and ice storms, an accident at the nuclear power plant in Berwick, accidents at any of the other industrial plants that dot the area. Then there are other, way-out-there scenarios which could affect much larger chunks of the area: a major earthquake (I have the New Madrid fault in mind here - it's going to go eventually), a large-scale terrorist attack or military assault on New York City or Philadelphia (always a concern during the Cold War, no less a concern in today's environment of wild-card nuclear players), a Tunguska Event level cataclysm, or the dreaded but very real "unknown unknowns."

Is there a plan in place to deal with a mass evacuation in any of these very different scenarios?

We have major highways - Interstate 81 intersects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike about 10 miles north of me, I-80 about 20 miles south of me, and with I-84 about 30 miles north of me. We are crisscrossed with railroad tracks, some abandoned and some active - with one of the active ones, the Canadian-Pacific freight line, unfortunately running along the Susquehanna through much of this area.

A flood - even a minor one - can cut off many of the access routes to major highways, and can render train tracks in a flood plain useless for mass evacuations by boxcar. Recent floods have cut off access to Nanticoke from several directions, and even without a flood river water undermined some railroad tracks a few years ago, causing a major accident. Forest fires can also cut off even major highways. And a localized disaster such as an accident at the Berwick nuclear power plant can cut off entire compass directions as evacuation routes.

So is there a plan? Is there a plan to evacuate those without transportation, to get the people in hospitals out alive, to see to it that the folks in the boondocks know enough to run for their lives? Honestly, I don't know. I have no idea if we would handle a mass evacuation any better than New Orleans did.

How about you?

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