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County disaster planning and planner's remarks an outrage

December 01, 2005

How would Washington County residents be evacuated from their homes during a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina?

Not very well, judging from the plan produced by Stoyan Russell, the county's emergency planner. Anyone who looks at the facts will be outraged by the lack of preparedness and Russell's insensitive statements about the county's indigent residents.

If you didn't read the Nov. 27 story by The Herald-Mail's Erin Cunningham, here are some of the key points:

In mid-September, after Hurricane Katrina battered the U.S. Gulf Coast, The Herald-Mail asked for a copy of Washington County's evacuation plan.

After that request, Russell revised the initial plan, which had not been reviewed by anyone else in county government, or the Maryland Emergency.

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Though the revision took the plan from 17 to 49 pages, Russell said he was unable to remember what changes he had made just a short time earlier.

Although Russell's revision included a provision for recruiting volunteers to herd livestock out of danger, he didn't make it clear how human residents would be notified in an emergency.

Radio alerts might not be possible if there were a power outage, Russell said. And notifying residents by going door-to-door could be impossible during hazardous materials incidents, he said.

What about battery-powered radios, or those new models that can be cranked to recharge them?

Shouldn't the county government advise residents to have such radios ready for an emergency? Russell's office does have a refrigerator magnet with an emergency checklist on it. It's a good idea, but if there's been any distribution of these, we're unaware of it.

Shouldn't the county's suggestions for residents' emergency preparedness be at least as well publicized as the fire service's campaign to get citizens to change smoke detector batteries twice a year?

It is obvious that emergency planning, four years after Sept. 11, 2001, especially citizen education, has been an afterthought in this county.

Yes, it is impossible to plan for every possible disaster scenario, but if a hurricane struck here tomorrow, there would be mass confusion. And with the Camp David presidential retreat so close, a terrorist attack is not impossible, either.

Would you be prepared to leave home on an hour's notice with a "go bag," as Russell suggests? You might, if you knew what a "go bag" was and what should be in it.

If you aren't prepared, Russell said, "that's your problem."

Even those with little money should be able to prepare for an emergency, because, Russel said, "They have money for cigarettes. They have money for booze."

The inference there seems to be that all poor people are poor because of their own bad habits. FEMA's hapless Michael Brown was out of his depth, but at least he didn't blame the victims for their own misery.

The Washington County Commissioners should apologize to their constituents for tolerating this and shake up Russell's department immediately. That process should include reminding Russell that the people who pay his salary deserve much better than this.

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