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County's evacuation plan for the poor called "dubious at best"

If an unthinkable disaster happened here, the poor, the frail and people without transportation would not be left behind to fend for themselves.

That's the official position of local officialdom. Unlike their colleagues in New Orleans, Mecklenburg County officials say they do have a plan to evacuate people in the case of a nuclear disaster. That's important because Mecklenburg is the only county in the nation with two nuclear plants in such close proximity to such a big population center.

The Mecklenburg plan goes like this: In the event of a pending nuclear meltdown or radiation release, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) bus drivers and people who operate vehicles for the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services will drive into the 10-mile emergency planning zone (EPZ) around either of the plants, locate vulnerable people and then drive those people out to safety. This may come as a shock to the CATS and social services drivers reading this article, who are probably hearing about this plan for the first time. To date, none of the drivers have been trained for this duty because there's such high turnover in those positions that the continual training of new replacements would be difficult to do.

So the plan, officials say, is to train those drivers on the spot. It's called "Just in Time" training, and it is used regularly by the military.

But even with this insta-training, will $15-an-hour bus drivers head straight toward a nuclear reactor in the early phases of a meltdown to rescue people they don't know? Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Planner Steve Norman is confident they will, once the drivers know all the facts. Norman is the guy who spends his days preparing for a nuclear emergency. He said evacuation coordinators would likely be given plenty of advance notice by Duke Energy if there was a problem at McGuire or Catawba nuclear stations. He also said that the designated drivers would not be sent out if there were any dangers to them.

Once those drivers understand this, things should be fine, he said. "I think that when most people who are in this and realize it is an emergency situation are given the proper information, they will do what they need to do," Norman said.

That, of course, assumes Duke Energy promptly notifies local officials that there may be a problem. It also assumes the problem is one that unfolds slowly. The precedent established by other plants isn't promising.

During the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, plant managers didn't tell the media or public officials the full extent of what was going on. Plant officials went so far as to convey the impression that the accident was substantially less severe and the situation more under control than it actually was, according to a summary of US House of Representatives hearings on the matter.

The same thing happened in February 2000, when Consolidated Edison delayed calling public officials for an hour after the reactor at Indian Point Power Plant in New York blew a steam tube and released radioactive steam into the air. When company representatives finally did notify officials outside the plant, the representatives denied that any radiation had escaped the reactor, though in fact it had. The plant was later shut down for 11 months.

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, DC, laughed outloud when he heard a description of the Mecklenburg evacuation plan for people without vehicles.

"Yeah, right," he said. "It is dubious that you will be able to get bus drivers who are not trained to respond -- dubious at best. We saw that at least 25 percent of the New Orleans Police Department failed to report for duty [during the Katrina disaster]. They were trained personnel. If you get untrained personnel, [the percentage] is likely going to be much higher. The response would be a fraction of what you need. It is very likely that this will be a prescription for stranding people."

History and science support his contention. Sociologist James Johnson has documented this trend in study after study, the most compelling of which was one he conducted in the vicinity of Shoreham Nuclear Power Station on Long Island in New York. Firefighters and bus drivers were asked, "What do you think you would do first if an accident requiring a full-scale evacuation of the population within 10 miles of the plant were to occur?" Sixty-eight percent of firefighters and 73 percent of bus drivers said family obligations would take precedence over emergency duties.

At one hospital during the Three Mile Island accident, only six of 70 physicians scheduled for duty showed up. The hospital wasn't even located within the five-mile evacuation zone; it was a full 25 miles away and supposedly out of range of the radiation released from the plant.

Louisiana State University Professor Brian Wolshon chairs the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Subcommittee on Emergency Evacuation and is an expert on evacuation issues. He, too, said he doubts whether emergency workers would show up to help the poor or the stranded in the face of a pending or breaking nuclear event.

"Your guess would be as good as mine," said Wolshon. "On one side, I'd say there's not a lot of history to indicate whether or not this would work. On the other side, all you have to do is look at what happened in New Orleans. It was pretty obvious that that kind of philosophy didn't work."

Exactly what would work is an open question that evacuation officials across the country have struggled with in recent years. Mecklenburg County's evacuation plan for the poor and infirm is largely the same as those of other municipalities across the country, said Don Jacks, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

And there's another problem. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Wolshon, who also does consulting work, began receiving calls from state government officials concerned they couldn't evacuate those who lack transportation for financial or physical reasons. Why? Because the officials don't know how many such people there are, who they are or where they live. Few governments are willing to cop to this publicly, but some are beginning to. Officials in Florida's Tampa Bay recently admitted they don't have enough information on the poor to find and evacuate them.

It's a problem Mecklenburg County faces as well. There's no existing list or data source officials could use to determine how many people would need transportation in a serious emergency, or where those people are located. Instead, the county must rely on people to read the yearly calendars Duke Energy sends out to people in the EPZ. Attached to the calendar is a card people can send to emergency management officials to let them know of illnesses, disabilities or other reasons one may have for needing transportation in an evacuation.

"We do have to rely on the public to take some responsibility for registering to let us know that they are there," said Norman.

So far, only 247 people have responded and are entered into the database Norman maintains. Of those, just 120 said that at some point they might have an issue with transportation.

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