Pa. Planners Turn Focus to How to Handle Potential Katrina-like Crisis

The size and complexity of the Hurricane Katrina disaster are forcing Pennsylvania’s emergency planners to confront new questions about how well the state might handle a civil emergency of similar magnitude.

Floods and snowstorms are the biggest potential threats to Pennsylvania, but disaster experts also must anticipate everything from tornados and drought to a nuclear meltdown, a chemical-plant fire or a terrorist attack.

The example of Katrina — and the state’s experience with all sorts of natural catastrophes — are quite different than the types of disasters envisioned by the state’s recent mock-disaster exercises for nuclear or biological attacks.

“Maybe we’ve focused a little too minutely on the terrorist threat, and maybe what we should be doing is focusing on all-hazards planning,” said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Adrian R. King Jr.

The suffering that people in Louisiana and Mississippi endured in the days after the recent hurricane is helping motivate Pennsylvania officials to take a fresh look at how they can improve their own emergency communications, evacuation procedures and shelter management.

Some ideas have already emerged.

“You find out that a lot of people didn’t have transportation,” said Luzerne County emergency management director Albert J. Bardar. “Having a good bus inventory available, and vans and wheelchair vans to move people in a hurry if needed is a very important factor.”

When a train derailed in Pittsburgh in 1987 and about 16,000 people had to be evacuated, Allegheny County ran into some of the reluctance to leave that has been seen in New Orleans, said Bob Full, the county’s emergency services chief. He thinks more would go willingly if their pets were somehow included.

“That is a part of our plan I know we’re going to be working on,” he said.

A severe winter storm hits somewhere in Pennsylvania about every other year, but it is the potential for a severe ice storm followed by days of freezing temperatures that most concerns Erie County emergency management director Nick Sleptzoff.

He envisions a lethal combination of downed power lines, blocked or inaccessible roads and extreme cold that could make evacuation nearly impossible. Katrina’s breathtaking scope has made him rethink a key question: How bad could it get?

“If we had to evacuate our entire county, it would be very difficult. You’re talking about 280,000 people — we’d rely an awfullot on (private) vehicles,” he said. Officials may have to pick and chose who would qualify for limited shelter space.

“People who don’t have a place to go, people who have to rely on oxygen or medications, those type of things, those are the people we would be focusing on,” he said.

The state’s National Guard contingent — a 20,000-person force that ranks among the nation’s largest — has considerable experience with disasters and currently has about 2,500 people helping out in Louisiana.

After the hurricane knocked out phone service in the Gulf Coast, the Pennsylvania Guard sent one of its nine satellite communications teams, and its array of expertise also includes search-and-rescue extraction, medical support and triage, decontamination, security and engineering.

“We’ve looked at every contingency possible, and looked at worst-case scenarios, and feel very confident with the state assets and the Guard assets, with the skills of our first responders, that we have tremendous capability,” said Lt. Col. Xavier Stewart, the Pennsylvania National Guard’s director of joint emergency operations.

Having resources available is one thing, but putting them to productive use is another matter. The Pennsylvania Guard troops in Louisiana were frustrated when they arrived at the scene last week only to find they lacked a specific mission.

“One of the things that we’ve seen nationwide, and in Pennsylvania, is the overwhelming desire to help,” said King, the PEMA director. “But it’s got to be done within the system, otherwise resources don’t go to the right places.”

That also may prove to be one of Katrina’s lessons.

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