“Unfortunately, not all the silly stuff we read is on the comics pages. In the clumsy aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some county government officials recently waxed confident about evacuation plans for these northern suburbs. Almost made us spill our coffee. In quick succession, some heavy doses of reality intervened, enough to spur this thought: Don’t look at backward New Orleans as some kind of anomaly, something we couldn’t replicate in an emergency.
First the funnies, from an article last week
“The longer the time, the easier it is. As tragic as 9/11 was and as dangerous as I believe Indian Point is, the planning that we’ve undergone to take care of situations like those certainly has given us more skills that we had in the past,” said Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, quoted in an article headlined, “Counties’ officials confident area could be evacuated.”
“With events like the 1996 blizzard and Hurricane Floyd, we’ve had to deal with these kinds of emergencies. They certainly were not on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, but we know we have troubles. Our teams are more cohesive, and we have the ability to respond better. We also have well-organized relationships with both the state and federal governments because of Indian Point. We’ve had to work on that coordination,” said Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef in the same report.
Pardon us, but aren’t these reassuring officials the same county leaders who, with their counterpart in Orange County, properly refused in recent years to sign off on Indian Point-inspired evacuation plans — for the expressed reason that the plans were inherently flawed and that it would be impossible to evacuate such a densely populated region? “It proved to be irrelevant, and there is no purpose in signing it,” Vanderhoef once said of the plan.
And don’t these officials preside over the same counties that former FEMA Director James Lee Witt concluded in 2002, after evaluating said evacuation plan, could not be evacuated safely in a nuclear emergency? Just checking. We know that emergency officials throughout the region since 9/11 have redoubled efforts to heighten disaster preparedness. But continuing experience on local roads still screams that we are never more than a flat-tire removed from bedlam — and that’s without the burdens of flooding, terrorism, nuclear mishap or even after-Mets game traffic. Why not be up front about that?
A dose of reality came a week ago today, in a fiery traffic accident on the Tappan Zee Bridge. It brought Rockland- and Westchester-bound bridge traffic to a standstill for an hour and a half.
“After 27 years of commuting,” Valley Cottage resident Peter Bernhart, who works in Ardsley, told a reporter while stopped on the Route 9 Thruway overpass in Tarrytown, “I have at least 14 shortcuts to get to the bridge. I tried all of them . . . and as you can see, we’re not going anywhere.”
That’s the region we know and love, socking it to the rich and poor alike. Mid-week brought more familiarity and more reality — a report by members of the 9/11 Commission, who helpfully pointed out the obvious — that the nation had failed to act on key reforms (bad communication, poor planning, etc.) suggested by the panel, contributing to the kind of government incompetency seen on the Gulf Coast region. Another report out last week noted communications short circuits in the New York Fire Department — the same kind of communications foul-ups that compounded the suffering on 9/11.
And yet another study, by Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky’s Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, faulted New York City’s evacuation plans. It was what you might expect: MTA bus drivers unaware of their assigned evacuation responsibilities, residents unaware of shelter options, insufficient plans for moving the sick or elderly. When something goes tragically wrong in New York City, the dominoes would strike which suburban counties first?
But this just in: Officials on Sunday, just four years after 9/11, announced a $6 million federal grant that will create a radio frequency that connects emergency responders in New York City with each other and with suburban counties, including Westchester.
“One of the lessons we learned four years ago was the need for a regional approach to addressing large-scale disasters,” New York City Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said.
Somehow, we are not yet enthused.”
This editorial originally appeared in the Journal News