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D.C. Emergency Chief’s Prediction Of “Chaos In Event Of Nuke Attack” Raises Important Questions About Public’s Preparedness For Catastrophic Disasters

July 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

There is a fascinating interview by Jeff Stein in CQ Homeland Security with Darrell Darnell, Washington’s emergency management director, headlined “D.C. Homeland Security Chief Predicts Chaos In Event Of Nuclear Attack”. (Thanks to Eric Holderman’s Disaster Zone blog where I originally saw it.). I recommend reading the interview, because it puts into real focus the challenge of readying the public for an incident as serious as a nuclear explosion — and how far we the citizens are from being really prepared for such an event. 

I had two overall – somewhat contradictory – reactions to the Darnell interview. On the one hand the bad news: it underscores something I have been writing about for awhile  – the lack of realistic, fully thought out and widely-disseminated emergency preparedness planning for the public when it comes to catastrophic incidents, such as a nuclear attack. On the other hand the good news: Stein’s questions (and the willingness of Darnell to do the interview as well as his candor even if some of the responses are not all that reassuring) put a stark spotlight on the issue — and maybe it will lead to some new and overdue attention in Washington, D.C. and in other areas of the U.S. which face similar challenges. In fact, while the interview focuses on the nation’s capital, the lack of preparedness, engagement and knowledge among the citizenry — and the need to address it — is transferable to much of the country. 

Below is an excerpt from the part of the interview where Stein asks Darnell whether the District is prepared for a small nuclear bomb explosion. This section and what follows show the low level of public education and preparation. 

Q: So if it happened right now what would you do?

A: If it happened right now, the first thing we would do is notify some federal officials and get some assets that would help us provide immediate assistance, to get as many people away from ground zero, if you will, try to do the best thing we can to coordinate that area so that no one gets into it. We have plume modeling equipment here in our office. So I would ask my plume-modeling folks to as quickly as they can let me know where that plume is going to be, so we can start evacuating people. We would be sending out text alerts, a reverse 911, to anyone in the district who has a listed telephone number, explaining to them what actions to take, which areas to evacuate. We would also immediately pick up our emergency hot line to all the emergency agencies explaining to them what happened, where we are trying to evacuate people to, such as VDOT, so we can start our evacuation routes to West Virginia, Delaware, North Carolina.

Q: Let’s talk about evacuation routes. You know what evacuation is like during rush hour. If I were a terrorist, I’d strike right during rush hour, just like when the June 13 incident happened. Practically speaking, there is no evacuation possibility, is there?

A: Evacuation will be tough. I’m not going to sit here and tell you otherwise. And again, during a scenario like you proposed, there would be a lot of panic, a lot of chaos. I think that when word got out that it was a nuclear device, clearly people would be trying to get as far away from the detonation area as fast as they can. I don’t think there’s any question of that.

Whether you live in Washington, in another urban area or really any part of the nation, think about how much you and your fellow citizens know about what to do if, right as you are reading this post, a small nuclear bomb exploded somewhere in general area — ie. Would you evacuate and where or would it be advisable to ’shelter in place’? What is a plume and how would you deal with it? The fact is, as a recent Senate hearing discussed, there are a number of things you might be able to do in order to mitigate the effects of such an explosion, but you should know them in advance.

Since 9/11, there has been an enormous amount of work in planning, preparing and drilling by emergency services personnel, and by most accounts first responders are more prepared for a major catastrophe like a nuclear bomb. But the point I have tried to make in this blog — and which is borne out by the interview — is that the public is not really more prepared, in large part because we have not been included in the process. Whether there would be civilian “chaos” or not, one way to make that less likely is by integrating civilians in the planning in advance so we’ll know what to do or at least will not be hearing directions for the first time AFTER the explosion.

At present, I think a lot of people either think the authorities have plans to take care of everything, and some others just don’t want to think about the topic. An interview like this makes you face reality — we all better to prepare ourselves and ask our elected officials about their plans for the public. We shouldn’t expect perfection (particularly after a nuclear explosion), but we should begin discussing publicly what we should be expecting. 

Darnell, like most emergency managers, do not have the resources nor the public’s attention right now to do the level of planning, education and drilling to adequately prepare us. And I give him credit because many officials in his position would not even talk to the press about this topic. These are not easy issues to discuss, let alone address, but they need to be. In the CQ interview, many of Darnell’s responses raise as many questions as they answer. It is our responsibility — both government and the public in Washington and in communities around the country — to put more focus on answering them now so we have less to try to answer when and if the explosion comes.

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