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Will D.C. evacuees be coming to this region?

June 30, 2006

Beacuse of its experience in handling floods and other natural disasters, the State of West Virginia will hold a multistate conference in August to look at what would happen if Washington, D.C., had to be evacuated.

That's the word from Jim Spears, West Virginia's secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Spears, whose state was rapped last week in a federal review of its emergency preparedness, said that federal officials are the ones who aren't prepared.

Spears said he's told federal officials that no one state could handle all those fleeing the Balimore-Washington metropolitan area, which is home to more than 5 million people.

A natural disaster surprising residents of that area is less likely than a terrorist attack. We say that because with a natural disaster there is usually some warning of the destruction to come.

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But on Sept. 11, 2001, there was no warning that a hijacked airliner would be flown into the Pentagon on a suicide mission.

A so-called "dirty bomb," which some experts on terrorism expect will be used sooner or later, is more likely to cause panic than widespread destruction, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

NRC said such a bomb, also known as a Radiological Dispersal Device, uses a conventional explosive such a dynamite to spread radioactive material.

As such, NRC says it would only spread radiation for several city blocks, but could cause a massive disruption that terrorists could use to further their ends.

At this point, we would guess that few people are aware of the potential consequences of such an attack and have spent little time thinking about what they might do.

It might not be necessary to move millions of people from the nation's capital to more rural areas. But if that's the reality, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials should attend the Aug. 23-24 conference and set the record straight.

At this point, we can't be sure whether Spears' concerns are justified - or whether the federal government is any better prepared for such a possibility than it was for Hurricane Katrina. We await the conference with great interest.

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