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Ready for Disaster?

City leaders question whether Alexandria is prepared for an emergency.

Imagine the scenario: The power suddenly goes off. The cell phone isn't working. In the distance, thick plumes of black smoke are on the horizon. Sirens wail in the distance. There's no access to television or the Internet. The air smells funny, and it may not be safe to be outside.

Time to evacuate or stay?

With the ever-present threat of terrorism haunting the region and the specter of natural disaster freshly replenished by Hurricane Katrina, city leaders are questioning whether Alexandria is prepared for an emergency. But solutions are difficult to find, and officials seem to have more questions than answers.

EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS did not fare well in the budget season earlier this year. The city manager denied a $242,916 request from the Fire Department to add emergency communications technicians. Then the City Council voted to reduce the city manager's proposed expenditure for fire and emergency services by $347,504.

The Office of Emergency Management, which would coordinate the city's resources in the event of an emergency, saw its budget increase — but not without a fight. The city manager's proposed budget suggested reducing expenditures for the office by $16,583. The City Council eventually voted to increase the budget of the Office of Emergency Management by $14,509, and the money comes with a difficult goal: The office expects to reach 100 percent of businesses and residents in the city with "emergency preparedness materials."

City leaders are eager to learn lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the biggest lesson officials want residents to know is that they need to be prepared. Every citizen of the city should be supplied to live without assistance for three days. This means stocking the house or office with water, food, medicine, blankets, flashlights, weather-alert radios and batteries.

"Beyond communicating that we are prepared, I think the most important thing coming out of this is that people are taking their own responsibility in being prepared for something," said Councilman Paul Smedberg. "I don't even know that I'm prepared at home."

COMMUNICATING DURING an emergency is critical to saving lives, but communications systems may be disabled or destroyed. Emergency plans call for the city to communicate with residents by using public address systems that have been installed on all public safety vehicles. But language barriers could create problems with non-English speaking residents of the city.

"It's not acceptable to say that residents of the city who don't speak English aren't gong to know what to do," said Councilman Rob Krupicka.

Nevertheless, emergency managers admit that they would not be able to communicate to all of the city's non-English speaking residents. Even communications in English might be imperiled if telephone and cell phone coverage is disabled. "We have gone out and recently purchased some satellite phones," said Mayor Bill Euille, adding that the purchase came after Hurricane Katrina. "That's a lesson learned."

One of the biggest lessons learned is that many plans don't exist. In a special session of the City Council to explore the city's level of preparation, Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Penn told council members that the city did not have evacuation plans for those without transportation or emergency supplies for those with limited means.

"These are lessons that we are now seeing from Katrina," Penn said. "We haven't responded to those lessons yet."

EVACUATING ALEXANDRIA in the event of a disaster could be a nightmare. Existing regional evacuation plans call for using major routes out of the city: Duke Street, King Street, Route 1, Interstate 495 and Interstate 395.

"We will use these major routes for small evacuations," Penn said.

"Let's not kid ourselves. There may be a chemical or biological situation that would cause us to have to evacuate the whole city," said Euille, adding that the major routes would be unusable. "The real problem for us in this region is going to be able to get across the street — it's not going to be to get out of the city."

Evacuating Northern Virginia poses major problems. In the event of a regional evacuation, existing congestion would combine with a traffic gridlock as people try to flee the area.

"If we can't get people home at night in a reasonable amount of time, I'm not sure how — in a state of panic — we're going to get to Roanoke," said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson.

In the city, schools and recreation centers have been designated as shelters in the event of an emergency, but those buildings are not equipped with food, water and blankets to supply a city-wide evacuation. Sheltering Alexandria residents in the event of a partial evacuation would be a problem for recreation centers that are not connected to schools because they do not have stockpiles of food and water. Furthermore, notifying residents of an evacuation poses its own problems.

"It's important to remember that our first step, before evacuation, is shelter in place," Penn said. "In a quick event, an unannounced event, such as a chemical attack, evacuation is not the course of action. Shelter in place is the most appropriate course of action."

THE CITY HAS PARTICIPATED in two large-scale "disaster exercises." Last September, the city participated in a mock disaster involving multiple explosions at Metro stations throughout the region. The exercise revealed several weaknesses, especially transporting people through the city while avoiding evacuated areas. In addition, local hospitals were not prepared for a high volume of serious injuries.

Another disaster exercise conducted earlier this year tested the city's ability to distribute medicine in the event of an emergency. Lessons from this exercise will be employed in January, when another exercise is planned to move actual stockpiles of medicine from one location to another.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the city has acquired several major pieces of equipment to prepare for emergencies. In the event Washington were attacked with a weapon of mass destruction, the city of Alexandria would use two special trailers that are equipped with protective suits, gloves, boots, re-breathers and decontamination equipment. In the event of mass casualties in Alexandria, the city would use a special trailer that is equipped with triage tags, backboards, oxygen, IV bags, and bandages. This trailer is supplied to treat 300 stable patients and 50 critical patients.

Early warning is the hallmark of preparedness, and city leaders are using technology to act quickly in the case of an attack. The city owns a portable radiological monitor, which is a walk-through unit similar to airport screening units. The city government also owns 40 personal dosimeters, which detect unhealthy levels of radiation in the air.

Several public education efforts are working to get the word out about emergency preparedness. The "Be Ready" campaign is distributing literature bags that include preparedness facts sheets, disaster planning information and a magnet with emergency phone numbers in Alexandria. The campaign has already distributed packets to 12,000 of the 66,562 households in the city.

When communications are disabled, the city hopes to rely on a network of trained citizens who can organize a relief effort through Community Emergency Response Teams. They are trained in assessing damage after a disaster, extinguishing small fires, providing first aid and performing search and rescue.