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Evacuation won't be practiced

By JIM ROSS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- When Citrus County practices what it would do if a nuclear disaster strikes, citizen evacuation isn't part of the exercise.

Why not? What's the harm in staging periodic community drills that include evacuation?

Not all residents would participate, of course. But at least the interested ones could practice the steps they would take if an accident, or a terrorist, strikes the Florida Power plant and forces them to flee their homes.

"The biggest thing is liability," said Bill Hunt, the county's coordinator of radiological emergency planning. "If you're evacuating school kids in a non-emergency situation and you get in a wreck . . . you see what I'm saying."

Hunt certainly isn't alone. Although some communities include citizen evacuation as part of their disaster planning for nuclear accidents, most Florida emergency planners and experts interviewed last week supported Hunt's theory.

"If you get a couple hundred citizens and they get out here and get in a wreck, the liability issue would be great," Hunt said.

Even if liability and practicality weren't issues, a practice evacuation still isn't necessary, he argued.

"I think one of the biggest things is every year we have to evacuate because of flooding or storms or whatever, so people are used to evacuating. You're basically testing your plan already," Hunt said.

"So to try to get people involved, to see if they do or they don't evacuate" isn't workable.

Lt. Chip Wildy, emergency management director for Marion County, has more than a passing interest in Florida Power's plant.

Marion is well within the plant's 50-mile radius. And his county certainly would be a destination if people who live within 10 miles of the plant were ordered to flee.

Still, Wildy's not concerned that Citrus' practice drills don't include evacuation. A veteran law officer with a patrol background, Wildy said his experience tells him most people wouldn't participate.

Besides, "you find that, even the best laid plans, when the actual thing goes down," don't work.

More useful, he said, would be targeting a specific building for a practice evacuation. Marion County did that with a nursing home during a mock chemical spill. All the residents and staff were alerted ahead of time.

The federal Department of Education recommends that schools conduct drills for major disasters and that children be included in community emergency drills.

Some parents in Martin County agreed and took matters into their own hands. Worried about the nearby St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant on Hutchinson Island, they organized an evacuation drill at two elementary schools.

Other communities have found that their residents don't know much about the disaster plans, even though government was diligent in preparing them, and that practice helped everyone better understand what to do.

In Vermont, for example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unhappy with the results of a drill revolving around a nuclear power plant. So another drill is planned, and in this one, more than 10,000 residents are expected to evacuate to a staging center set up at a local high school.

Still, Bill Johnson, assistant director of the Miami-Dade office of emergency management, said his county does not include citizen evacuation when it stages drills related to the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant in deep southeastern Miami-Dade County.

"Evacuation drills are not without risks," Johnson said. "The return on your investment is pretty minimal. It just doesn't really lend itself to giving you any meaningful information.

"I don't have any scientific data to support my opinion, but my opinion is the benefit is not going to outweigh the risks because you always run into that situation, no matter how much we try to work with the media and get information out, you still run into people who didn't get the information, or didn't get it right," he said.

John Tatum, a recovery and mitigation program manager for Palm Beach County's division of emergency management, used to work for the New Jersey state office of emergency management. He said his office's operations never included citizen evacuation, and he hadn't heard of any offices that did.

"Probably the best thing you can do is educate the public," Tatum said.

"We don't even do it for hurricane drills," said Joe Carusi, a planner for Palm Beach County. "There are so many problems when you conduct an actual evacuation."

Carol Lehtola, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's department of agricultural and biological engineering, agreed that logistics probably are among the biggest hurdles.

"Part of it is just because of the monumental task of doing so," she said.

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