Duct tape

September 27, 2005

LIKE GENERALS BRAINSTORMING future wars, disaster preparedness planners cannot help but be heavily influenced by the last major battles. After 9/11, attention and resources were aimed at tightening airline security. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the focus became the need for timely evacuation of residents and early deployment of military resources. After that saved lives during Hurricane Rita last weekend, emergency management officials in Maryland and across the country are now under pressure to re-examine their disaster plans - with an eye on plans for mass evacuations.

So Maryland and Baltimore emergency officials naturally affirmed yesterday they're already working on sorting out the lessons from the recent back-to-back hurricanes for application in this region. From simple things (Have multiple jurisdictions made the mistake of contracting with the same bus company for help in an emergency?) to the almost unthinkable (Are plans adequate if all of Baltimore has to be evacuated?).

Unthinkable? Given the unpredictable events of recent years, evacuation planning cannot be neglected - particularly for a city in which there likely wouldn't be enough buses to carry those in the 30 percent of all households that don't have cars. Of course, this also is very true for Ocean City, where almost 400,000 vacationers might have to quickly depart that barrier island - putting all their cars at once on the Eastern Shore's road system.

At the same time, Baltimore-area disaster planners are absolutely right to continue to stress that a mass evacuation would be a very unlikely last resort - unlikely because the region has never suffered a full-strength hurricane and because most of it isn't prone to deep flooding. More likely emergencies - a terrorist attack or biological, chemical or radiological incidents - are apt to be much more contained geographically. As Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr., who recently led a city relief effort for 10 days in Louisiana, put it yesterday, "Our goal is not to evacuate the city. I don't see where we're serving the citizens of this city by moving all of them to another area."

Maryland, Baltimore and surrounding counties' disaster plans, instead, focus properly on sheltering in place - on educating residents to have on hand sufficient supplies to survive several days at home, on opening the doors of stocked community shelters if need be, and on carrying out small-scale evacuations as the situation warrants. That brings much of disaster planning down from government-ordered evacuations to citizens being able to take care of themselves with government help. If that strikes too close to federal officials' earlier suggestion to stock up on duct tape, so be it. Sufficient home supplies of water, food, a radio, batteries, plastic and, yes, duct tape might realistically prove a lot more beneficial to more people than counting on a mass evacuation.

By all means, evacuation plans should be up to date and in place - for the unthinkable. But in the meantime, officials must step up efforts to educate this region in how to care for itself at home.

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