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Key people omitted from drills: the public

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002

Florida Power is holding a series of drills this month focusing on how well workers would deal with an emergency at its nuclear power plant. The Sheriff's Office, the American Red Cross, local police and federal officials will take part. Noticeably absent will be a segment of the community that would be directly affected by such a disaster: You, the public.

The exercises, the largest such drill held at any nuclear plant in the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, will be broader than those typically conducted at the Crystal River complex. The scenario will envision a radiation release that would spread 50 miles, an emergency that would call for the evacuation of tens of thousands of terrified people.

The county has a detailed plan for what the public should do if the nuclear alert sirens were ever to sound for real. But we won't get to practice our roles in that plan because we're not invited to take part in the upcoming exercises.

Emergency workers will participate, and so will a handful of Citrus County school system administrators, but not the staffs at the schools who, in a nuclear emergency, would be expected to evacuate thousands of frightened children quickly and efficiently.

Officials with Florida Power and the county's emergency services told the Times this week that the public doesn't need to be involved in the drills. Because they deal with the threat of hurricanes every year, Floridians already know how to evacuate their homes, they said.

Hurricanes, of course, come after many days of warning; in a nuclear emergency, the notice is measured in minutes. In a hurricane evacuation, coastal residents move to inland shelters; in a radiation leak covering 50 miles, those shelters would be useless. In a hurricane, heroic volunteers and emergency workers often go back into danger zones repeatedly to rescue trapped residents. In a nuclear disaster, well, good luck.

As for Floridians knowing how to evacuate their communities quickly, you need only recall the craziness of 1998 when hundreds of thousands of people tried to flee raging brushfires along the state's east coast and managed to clog every road and highway.

And who can forget the "no-name storm" of 1993 that crept up on Citrus County overnight, stranding hundreds of coastal residents and revealing a host of serious problems with our storm plans?

The other reason given for excluding the public from the drills is the all-purpose liability concern. Someone could get hurt or bang up a car. Who would pay for the damage?

The idea of involving the public in such exercises is absurd, it would seem.

Except that it happens in towns around this country and the rest of the world.

* * *

From the Palm Beach Post: Parents and school staff in Martin County, concerned after Sept. 11 about the threat of a terrorist attack on the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant on nearby Hutchinson Island, organized an evacuation drill in March at two elementary schools.

The Jensen Beach Elementary School Advisory Council wanted to see how long it would take to get kids from their classrooms to Martin County High School -- about 5 miles to the south -- in case of a nuclear disaster.

The drill is a measure of the uneasiness some of the estimated 180,000 residents living within 10 miles of the St. Lucie plant still feel about being near what could be an attractive terrorist target.

Lorie Shekailo, co-chairwoman of the committee that proposed the drill, said many parents were worried about whether buses could whisk their children to safety in the event of an emergency. "The drill definitely will alleviate their fears," she said.

* * *

But that was a fairly modest drill organized by a couple of overprotective mothers, you say. It did not involve the entire community. No one would try to do a larger drill, right?


* * *

From the Associated Press, March 29: The state and about 250 volunteers last week practiced what they would do if there was a radiation leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Because of serious deficiencies revealed by the drill, mainly that people contaminated by radioactivity were not processed fast enough, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered the state to repeat the drill.

Under the Vermont Yankee emergency plans, more than 10,000 residents are expected to evacuate to the Bellows Falls Union High School. The staging center is expected to be able to treat people contaminated with radiation, as well as reunite families separated by a mass exodus from any accident at the nuclear power plant.

According to federal guidelines, 9,005 people in the 5-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee must be scanned for possible radioactive contamination within 12 hours. Officials determined that the process was going too slowly, and Westminster Town Manager Glenn Smith said the drill would be repeated within 120 days.

* * *

Okay, so they practice evacuations in Vermont. Big deal. They're a little weird up there in snow country. No one else thinks like that, right?

Wrong again.

* * *

From the Associated Press: Workers at Wolf Creek nuclear power plant near Wichita, Kan., and neighboring emergency officials began a mass evacuation drill on Nov. 14. The drill, two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, came at a time when nuclear plants are generating anxiety along with power.

Plant and emergency officials practiced a quick evacuation of all residents within 10 miles of the plant, and monitored radioactive fallout as far away as 50 miles. The specific accident scenario was kept secret until the start of the drills, which lasted two days. Critics of the nuclear industry contend the plants make a tempting target for a terrorist attack, one that the nation is ill prepared to prevent.

* * *

Communities around nuclear plants, of course, aren't the only places where prudent people prepare for the worst. Throughout the world, folks who live with the threat of nature's fury take steps to ensure their safety by practicing widespread evacuations.

In Boulder, Colo., the city and county hold annual flood evacuation exercises. Sirens go off, and officials use a phone alert system to call about 1,100 homes. The city also practices evacuating municipal buildings along Boulder Creek, while county crews work through a mock flood disaster based on Barker Dam.

Every April, the entire state of California holds a statewide Duck, Cover & Hold Drill to prepare for earthquakes. Activities range from information fairs to drills. The cities of Campbell and Berkeley hold citywide earthquake drills, while in Albany, neighborhoods practice simulated catastrophic events. The entire student body of Cal State Fullerton, 20,000 people, takes part in an evacuation drill.

In 1995, Oregon ordered coastal communities and schools to practice evacuations based on the threat of tidal waves, or tsunamis.

In Japan, 7,000 people living near the Sajurajima volcano take part in annual evacuation drills.

Following the World Trade Center attacks, workers in skyscrapers around the world are holding evacuation drills. From the Sears Tower in Chicago and the 64-story USX Tower in Pittsburgh to the One Canada Square building in London, Britain's tallest building, workers are giving up their time to become familiar with escape routes.

At Southeast Missouri State University, more than 6,000 students and staff took part in an evacuation drill.

Outside Anchorage, Alaska, dozens of residents evacuated their homes last fall in a brush fire drill that showed several glaring problems with their community's emergency plan. Residents said evacuation instructions weren't clear. Some followed fire engines and ended up at a staging area far away from their assigned shelter. A helicopter pilot juggled nine radio frequencies as he tried to stay in touch with agencies on the ground. Firefighters had trouble locating specific homes because of confusing house numbers.

The list of these community drills goes on and on.

* * *

Forward-thinking communities recognize that even the best plan is no good if the people who are supposed to follow it don't know about it.

In November, the Citrus Times published a series of stories about our county's nuclear emergency plan. In talking to residents, it was obvious that few people knew what to do in the event of such an emergency. The details, such as they are, are in your phone book. Bet you didn't know that was the first place you're supposed to look when the sirens start howling.

* * *

People living near the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York realized just how uninformed they are about their community's emergency plan through a survey conducted in November for an environmental group known as Riverkeeper.

According to The Journal News of Westchester, the survey showed:

72 percent of those who live within 10 miles of the plant were not familiar with the evacuation plans;

73 percent of the people would try to reach their children at their schools and not go to assigned retention centers, severely complicating efforts to move people out of the region;

only 43 percent of the people had received a copy of the plan. Additionally, only 45 percent of those living within the 10-mile zone said they knew where they were supposed to go in the event of an emergency.

an emergency would trigger mass evacuations well beyond the 10-mile radius that governments prepare for. Sixty percent of the residents within 50 miles of the plant would try to evacuate. That zone, which includes New York City, contains 8 percent of the population of the United States.

The Indian Point plan calls for the use of police departments that no longer exist and relies heavily on Good Samaritans and volunteers. It calls for teachers and school bus drivers to risk their lives and not protect their families. Teachers are required to stay with their students until all are safely out of the school, while bus drivers are required to drive into the danger zone three separate times and fight traffic to leave the zone three times before the evacuation is complete.

"It is clear that chaos would reign," said Alex Matthiessen, executive director of Riverkeeper.

State legislator Tony Hay was equally worried. "I know a tremendous amount of work has been put into this plan, but it wouldn't work. One car accident on the highway, one fender bender, and the plan is history. . . . It's a doomsday scenario."

* * *

While we in the United States talk about the potential for nuclear plant disasters, Japan speaks from experience. Besides being the only nation to ever suffer a nuclear attack during wartime, Japan also was the site of one of the worst atomic energy plant disasters in recent years.

A radiation leak at a fuel-reprocessing plant in Tokaimura on Sept. 30, 1999, killed two workers and affected hundreds of others. The government and the company that owned the plant admitted that lack of planning contributed to major problems. The center where people were sent had no drinking water, food, radiation-protective clothing or masks, or iodide tablets. Emergency services called to the scene were not told that there had been an accident and they arrived without appropriate safety suits or equipment.

After the incident, the community held demonstrations protesting the lack of information given to the public and the slow and incompetent reaction by the management and government.

In response, a law was passed mandating special measures against nuclear disasters. And the government began scheduling community evacuation drills.

Last October, hundreds of Self-Defense Force personnel and residents held an evacuation drill at the Global Nuclear Fuel Japan Co. in Yokosuka. In Tokaimura, the site of the disaster, about 2,600 people took part in a similar exercise.

* * *

Let's assume for the moment that it's impractical to hold a mass evacuation drill in Citrus County. You really can't expect to shut down businesses, close schools and empty homes and highways all at once. Such a drill would show how difficult it would be to implement the disaster plan in the event of an actual emergency, when you would expect people to panic and disregard the plan as they try to save themselves and their loved ones, but a communitywide drill may well be unrealistic.

Is the only other option, then, to do nothing at all?

Is there no advantage to having community information fairs on emergency procedures? Would it really be a waste of time to hold drills at schools so teachers, parents, students and bus drivers would know their roles? Is there no value to setting up practice washdown stations and potassium-iodide pill distribution sites so the thousands of people who live close to the nuclear plant, and the emergency workers themselves, can practice for an emergency?

Or is it better to just assume that everyone knows what to do and how to do it?

Since Sept. 11, communities everywhere have begun to take this issue seriously. The U.S. Education Department recommends that schools nationwide conduct drills for major disasters and that children be included in community emergency drills. The recommendation was shared by the governments of Canada, France, Japan, Israel, Mexico, Ireland, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Ensuring safety when crisis hits takes practice, says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based firm specializing in crisis preparedness in schools.

"Go in and ask the administrator, "Do you have a plan?' The answer is yes. Then you go in and ask the custodian and the classroom teacher, and many of them haven't heard of it," Trump told the Newhouse News Service. "It certainly hasn't been tested or exercised."

Avery Vise, editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication for the trucking industry, said we can all learn a lesson from Sept. 11.

"Morgan Stanley had about 2,700 employees in the south tower of the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, only six died. It was a miracle, but it was no accident. Shaken by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the company had been conducting regular evacuation drills for about eight years. Almost by instinct, Morgan Stanley employees knew what to do when the airliner hit that morning."

We in Citrus County have a plan; it's just that we've never bothered to practice it.

But why should we worry? There's no chance that someone could hijack an airliner out of Tampa or Orlando and crash it into the nuclear power complex, right? That's as crazy as thinking that a hijacked jetliner would ever hit something like the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. That could never happen in this country.

Except that it did.

In any case, our nuclear plant is rock solid. (Okay, so they're replacing the huge lid on the reactor. No big deal -- those things are bound to wear out eventually.)

And it's not as if the Crystal River plant has ever had a significant emergency. There's no chance we could have a Three Mile Island-type disaster here.

Except that we did.

On Feb. 26, 1980, just a few months after the TMI emergency in Pennsylvania, 43,000 gallons of radioactive liquid spilled at Crystal River Unit III.

No, nothing like that will ever happen here again. That is, until it does.

And, of course, we'll all be ready.


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