Wis. cities make disaster plans suited to their reality
By Rob Zaleski
The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
Copyright 2006 Madison Newspapers, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
You don't want to be in Milwaukee if terrorists set off a deadly bomb of some sort and officials there ordered a mass evacuation.
Or so suggests a new report by the American Highway Users Alliance, a trade association for highway builders and the automotive industry.
Turns out Milwaukee is among the 90 percent of the major U.S. cities that aren't adequately prepared for a mass evacuation, the organization says. And that's causing a lot of hand-wringing in the Department of Homeland Security, according to a Washington Post story this week.
Actually, Milwaukee got a D for its preparations to date. Twenty other cities got failing grades. And only one — Kansas City — got an A.
But while the Bush administration and Congress say that mass evacuation plans are crucial, some emergency planners are questioning the wisdom of such a strategy. Yes, they say, it's crucial for high-target terrorist cities like New York and Washington, D.C. And yes, it certainly makes sense for New Orleans and other coastal areas at high risk for hurricanes.
As David Riggleman, a spokesman for Las Vegas, told the Post, "We are not quite sure what the scenario would be. We're in the middle of the Mojave Desert. For us to evacuate 1.8 million people, where are we going to evacuate them to?"
Daniel Alexander, Milwaukee's emergency coordinator, had a similar reaction. Although Milwaukee has an international port and 12 Fortune 500 companies, he says the city faces bigger risks from tornadoes and ice storms and would prefer to invest its money in things like improving radio systems for first responders.
"There is an inordinate amount of attention paid to one threat or vulnerability that is not applicable to all areas of the country," he said.
Indeed, as I read the story, I had a sudden feeling of deja vu.
While working for United Press International in 1981, I interviewed Mel Stapleton, a top official in Wisconsin's Division of Emergency Government, to see how disaster planning had changed since the Cold War era. And I was shocked to find out that it hadn't changed much at all.
In fact, Stapleton said the feeling among emergency officials nationwide was that, with the right amount of planning, most states could survive a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. All we needed to do, he said, was to move Americans out of 400 potential high risk areas — including nine in Wisconsin — into facilities in rural communities.
People would be asked to bring along a two-week supply of food, he told me.
"By day 14, the danger would be over. People could be out walking around."
That's what the planners figured anyway. But when the story hit the wires — The Capital Times, among others, ran it on the front page — most people thought it was pure folly.
If we actually waged an all-out war with the Soviets, they noted, not only would few people be walking around two weeks later, but much of the country would be reduced to powder.
Today, 24 years later, the state's emphasis is on all-hazards emergency planning, as Gov. Jim Doyle and Major Gen. Al Wilkening of the Department of Military Affairs pointed out at a press conference on the five-year anniversary of 9/11.
And while the strategy does include mass evacuation plans for all 72 Wisconsin counties, Ed Ruckriegel, emergency management coordinator for Madison, said this week that "we cannot come up with a scenario that would require the complete evacuation of this city."
Is it possible for terrorists to set off a dirty bomb here?
Of course, Ruckriegel says. "But I'm not an advocate of building plans for the highly unlikely."
What city and county planners have done, he says, is identify about 10 areas where the potential for a catastrophic event is fairly high. For example, "we know they've got ammonia and other dangerous chemicals on site at Oscar Mayer. We know the potential plume from a catastrophic failure there.
"We understand all these things and we can look at it and say under those conditions, we would need to evacuate maybe one-fourth of the city. But not everyone in the city is going to be in danger because of any one thing."
Ruckriegel says one of the most important things citizens need to understand is that "government cannot do it all for everyone" and that "individuals need to take responsibility for their own safety and their own planning."
If there were a toxic chemical spill on the Beltline, for example, and people were told to remain in their homes for several days, could they do it?
"People need to ask themselves, Do I have a couple days supply of water? Or am I going to become a burden for the government because I haven't planned for an emergency?'"
Those are the things that emergency planners worry about most, Ruckriegel says — not al-Qaida nor Kim Jong Il.