Md., city reluctant to plan mass evacuation

Emergency

September 25, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,Sun Reporter

Four years after the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, and four weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, state and city emergency response officials have been reluctant to plan for a worst-case disaster scenario that would require a total evacuation of Baltimore.

The city's 34-page evacuation blueprint is layered with options and contingencies and a set of murky arrangements for shelter should there be an evacuation across city boundaries. As recently as last week, the city and its neighbors were not prepared for a New Orleans-style exodus if a disaster, manmade or natural, were to force a large number of city residents to flee.

"If you're talking about hundreds of [city] evacuees, we can take them," said Elise Armacost, emergency management spokeswoman for Baltimore County, which would likely absorb the initial overflow of city evacuees. "But if you're talking about tens of thousands, that's a whole different story."

Baltimore, with a population of about 650,000, in fact, would likely need to move tens of thousands of residents, if not hundreds of thousands, out of the city if a catastrophe on the scale of Katrina should occur. But emergency officials contend that attempting to script a plan for all disasters, especially the biggest and most unlikely ones, is pointless.

Instead, Baltimore officials see emergency preparedness as game plans in which football plays can be called at the line of scrimmage. "Everything is dependent on the situation," said Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., the city's emergency manager. "Plans must be flexible."

Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director John W. Droneburg III says it would be "irresponsible" for Maryland jurisdictions to "waste time" planning for an event as implausible as Katrina, which displaced a half-million Gulf Coast residents.

In any event, Goodwin says, no large city could plan to relocate its entire population in an orderly, expedient manner. "If someone comes up with the answer on how to do that, they should write a book," he said. "It would be read and re-read."

Other emergencies such as biological or chemical contamination, toxic fires, explosions or nuclear incidents would likely be handled with minor movements of residents but no major evacuations, officials say. They point out that even when jetliners exploded into New York's World Trade Center and the skyscrapers came down, only two dozen blocks of Manhattan were evacuated.

Like Baltimore, few cities across the country have emergency plans that lay out how they would evacuate, shelter and feed their populations in a major evacuation scenario.

But Ann Patton, an emergency planning consultant in Tulsa, Okla., who has worked with the Department of Homeland Security, warned that Katrina changed everything.

"You have to think about the unthinkable and plan for it as best you can," she said. "If we had any question about that before [Katrina], we don't now."

As Hurricane Rita bore down on Texas, Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, agreed, saying no disaster hypothesis should be excluded. "Every possibility needs to be looked at," he said.

Friday afternoon, he said, the city's security Cabinet met to begin such discussions.

Evacuation

Evacuating a city is not easy. New Orleans officials were criticized for not evacuating early enough, while Houston's order to evacuate caused hellish traffic jams.

Any order to evacuate Baltimore would likely come from O'Malley, although Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has authority to declare a state of emergency and order evacuations statewide.

Ideally, the city would have advance notice of an impending disaster, such as a storm, and residents would be alerted through public service announcements, officials said.

During a sudden emergency, such as the 2001 train tunnel fire, the city's air raid sirens would alert residents to look for further directions, they said. Recommended evacuation routes would depend on the location and severity of the emergency.

The response would be coordinated from the city's downtown command center or from its backup in a fortified bunker north of town.

Decisions would be made on which residents might need to be evacuated or whether they should stay put.

MEMA would lend support from its NASA-like emergency operations center in Reisterstown, staffed with officials from the Red Cross, the Maryland National Guard and every major state agency including those overseeing utilities, transportation, agriculture, aging and public health.

In Baltimore, if a dirty bomb or a hazmat incident were to happen, city officials said, they would "shelter in place" - meaning that residents would stay home - or move from one area of the city to another.

The city is divided into self-sustaining quadrants with shelters, police, transportation, health services and citizen volunteers. There are designated shelters at 26 public schools, Ravens Stadium and, if more space is needed, at the Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore Arena and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

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