- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Jim Spears looks at a map and thinks about a nuclear, biological or chemical attack on the Baltimore-Washington area he sees something else that rattles his nerves: major highways leading to West Virginia, a state sheltered by mountains but largely unprepared to deal with a mass migration.

While most urban evacuation plans assume people will flee in an orderly fashion, as they do from hurricanes, “I think we need to be prepared for an unorderly evacuation,” said Mr. Spears, the state’s director of military affairs and public safety.

The metropolitan areas are home to some 6 million people, many of whom could head west — on Interstate 70 from the District, on Interstate 64 from Richmond, even on U.S. 50 from Winchester, Va. Those northbound on Interstate 81 could run into those heading south, and when congestion builds, people could start taking exits — many lead to West Virginia.

“Whether we get 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Spears says. “When you look at a state with a population of 1.8 million as of the last census, you’ve got a problem.

“I don’t want to create a panic situation,” he added. “I just want to get people thinking.”

Mr. Spears has asked the Department of Homeland Security for $15 million to begin stockpiling supplies and to improve communications. He is traveling to Washington this week to make his case in person.

“If you look at the mountainous spine of West Virginia, the ability to communicate — particularly with first responders — is extremely difficult if not impossible,” Mr. Spears says.

West Virginia has improved communications in its south and west, where chemical plants sit, “but the whole structure needs to be in place right now,” he said. “We need the ability to communicate, command and control this migration.”

Mr. Spears has proposed planning meetings with Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and other state officials have raised the issue with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But FEMA says states must develop their own plans.

“Evacuations are always a local issue,” Don Jacks, FEMA spokesman for preparedness and national security issues, said yesterday. “They’ve always been and still are.”

In the 1980s, West Virginia had a plan to shelter evacuees from a nuclear attack on the nation’s capital. It called for housing people in 10 counties, in everything from schools to limestone caves.

Today, though, officials with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management say they are unfamiliar with the document. Acting Director Christine Morris said yesterday that she was working to locate the plan and learn whether it was ever updated.

Roy Young, deputy director of the Berkeley County Office of Emergency Services, said the Eastern Panhandle is working on a plan but needs help. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which handles D.C. evacuation plans, includes several Virginia and Maryland counties but stops at the state line.

“We have tried to get our foot in the door … but we are not really there yet,” Mr. Young said. “Unfortunately, with West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, there’s not that quad-state coordination yet.”

West Virginia will participate in a hazardous material exercise Oct. 1 in Virginia, and local authorities say that’s a start.

“Every day we go by without an incident is another day of planning for us,” said Darrell Penwell, director of Jefferson County’s Office of Emergency Management.

Jefferson, across the Shenandoah River from Loudoun County, is prepared to set up roadblocks at every entry point to the county, Mr. Penwell says.

But problems abound. Highways narrow quickly beyond the cities, from six or four lanes to two and, eventually, to one. That could create miles-long bottlenecks, and reaching people in the jam who need help would be a challenge.

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