Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (9/08/05)


What if the buses don't come? The sight of government officials repeatedly thanking and congratulating one another last week was embarrassing. One could only agree with Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish (the equivalent of our county), who implored, "I'm sick of press conferences. For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody."

As a nation we are great at denying responsibility: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," President Bush assured Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. This was a strange statement to make. Breaching of the New Orleans levees regularly figured prominently in the government's disaster scenarios. The President's statement was even too much for John Breaux, former senator and close Bush ally. "We talked about it last year," he insisted.

The dissembling was strangely reminiscent of Condoleezza Rice's protestation that no one could have known that anyone wanted to attack us by flying planes into buildings." Only a month before 9/11, she had discounted a CIA Presidential briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."

As a nation, we're also good at playing the blame game, finding scapegoats and holding post mortems that dissect and analyze tragic events. We can all look forward to a commission to delve into the question of how an event that was long predicted could have been allowed to happen. Already Department of Homeland officials, a totally unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, are pointing fingers at state and local officials. I note it here beforethe following document mysteriously disappears from the Homeland Security Department's website:

"In the event of a terrorist attack, national disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort."

It goes on to promise: "The department will also prioritize the important issue of citizen preparedness. Educating America's families on how best to prepare their homes for disaster and for citizens on how to respond in a crisis will be given special attention."

Aside from color coding the level of threat and scaring the public into needlessly buying thousands of miles of duct tape, the Department of Homeland Security, a totally unn has done diddly squat in the way of educating the public about anything. Ironically, September is National Preparedness Month.

And the President's compliment to Michael Brown, hapless head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that he had done "a heck of a job," was distressing--another example of the President's inability to admit that anything had not gone according to plan. Brown is the undersecretary of the DHS and floundering head of FEMA, who blamed the sick and poor residents of New Orleans for failing to evacuate the city on short notice.

Suddenly propelled into the spotlight, Michael Brown's biography on FEMA's web site conveniently omits his eleven-year stint as Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. It seems that Mr. Brown made such a mess of their horse shows and ran expenses so high the Association got rid of him.

No matter how they slice and dice it, this was a colossal failure of responsibility from the top down. The whole sorry debacle got me to thinking about the state of disaster preparedness in northwestern Westchester. Seeing images of what happened to New Orleans as a result of government neglect, I had to wonder, could I be looking at our own future?

Our fragile levees. There are two principal areas of concern in this corner of Westchester: Indian Point and the Croton Dam. Let's tackle Indian Point first, the site that perhaps poses the greatest threat. Of the 31 states with nuclear capacity, New York ranks fourth. (Illinois is first, Pennsylvania is second, and South Carolina is third.) Of New York's six reactors, the two plants at Indian Point generate 40 percent of the state's nuclear power.

We have to assume that at Indian Point what the President likes to call "the good folks" have taken the proper precautions to protect the installation from truck bombs and attack by individuals. They are not likely to lay out their security plans for all the world to see. We can all be grateful that none of the planes of 9/11 were piloted into the containment buildings there. Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this--and you wouldn't be reading it. The Indian Point buildings were only designed to withstand a glancing blow from small aircraft.

A typical nuclear energy plant may contain at its core the equivalent of a thousand times the radioactivity released at Hiroshima by the 1945 atomic bomb called "Little Boy" we exploded there. The spent-fuel pools at nuclear plants like Indian Point, however, can contain multiples of those amounts--the equivalent of many Chernobyls.

There's another threat to Indian Point that gets less attention: earthquakes. Contrary to popular belief, parts of the East Coast are surprisingly active seismologically. The culprit at Indian Point would probably be an earthquake along the extensive fault system called the Ramapo Fault. Part of a system of faults that has been mapped from Westchester County to eastern Pennsylvania and beyond, the Ramapo Fault, at one billion years old, is one of the oldest faults. It was active during the evolution of the Appalachian Mountains, when the fault system served to delimit the Newark Basin and other basins formed by the opening of the Atlantic Ocean, 200 million years ago. It began to show new signs of life in the 1970s.

Historically, earthquakes with magnitudes as high as 5.2 have occurred in the Indian Point region, including one at Wappingers Falls, June 7, 1974, and another at Annsville, January 17, 1980. The seismicity pattern appears to be concentrated along the Ramapo Fault, although activity in faults that cross this fault indicate a complex relationship between present day stresses in the Earth's crust and preexisting geologic features.

The chief danger of an earthquake affecting Indian Point is that even minor ground movement could disrupt the cooling system, causing radioactive products to be released accidentally into the atmosphere.

For this and other reasons, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to create and area within a 10-mile radius from Indian Point called the Emergency Planning Zone, or EPZ. It includes portions of four counties--Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Orange--and requires special attention in the event of what is called an "incident." Members of the public living or working in this area are to be notified of an unusual situation at the plant by a system of 156 sirens placed at strategic locations in the critical area.

Recently, for the third time in less than a month, the siren system failed to work when tested. The basic purpose of the siren system is to alert the public to listen for instructions over certain designated TV or radio stations. Because of the demonstrated lack of a reliable siren system, Entergy, the plants' operator, has begun a search for a replacement system, perhaps one that will not rely on such primitive devices as sirens.

Four levels of nuclear "incidents" could occur in which residents would either be instructed to remain at home or to evacuate the area.

Each of the four counties has prepared an elaborate evacuation plan published in a booklet entitled Community Emergency Planning for Indian Point. Westchester households that do not have the latest edition (dated 2004-2005) should request a copy from the County's Department of Emergency Services at 1-800-942-1452.

It is not envisioned that a situation will occur requiring evacuation of the entire area within the demarcated 10-mile radius. Rather, it is anticipated that smaller zones within the larger area will require evacuation, based on what are described as "plant conditions" and wind directions. Evacuation will require that residents make their way in their own vehicles to a General Population Resource Center located south of the 10-mile critical area. Pets are not accepted at such centers (except service dogs such as seeing eye dogs); owners are expected to have made provision for their care at a boarding kennel, or with friends or relatives outside the EPZ.

For those who do not have transportation, bus stops have been designated and marked with signs. These are collection points for what disaster experts call the "low-mobility" population, the elderly or infirm who do not drive, or the poor without cars or other means of leaving the area. No indication is given of the frequency of these buses.

For residents who may be completely bedridden, blind or hearing impaired, or otherwise unable to make their way to a bus stop, Westchester County's emergency planning booklet contains a postage-paid registration card. Using the information provided, the Department of Emergency Services will make arrangements for such residents to be evacuated during an emergency.

It is not known what steps this department has taken to amplify its list of self-identified persons with special needs (for example, by cross-checking with services such as Meals On Wheels or with the Visiting Nurse Service), especially since many elderly patients may tend to overlook details.

Children in school during school hours will be relocated in school buses to various designated School Reception Centers. In some cases these will not be the same as the General Population Reception Centers to which their parents are directed. How Westchester County will dissuade such parents from heading for the centers to which their children are bussed is not known.

One anomaly in the evacuation plan results from limiting evacuation procedures to location within each county. Residents living north of Indian Point, for example, including the population of Peekskill, who must evacuate their homes or workplaces are required to head south. But heading north into Putnam County would be more desirable in theory and in practice.

The most peculiar aspect of the evacuation plan is that its feasibility has never been tested. Can you immagine a school that never conducts a fire drill performing well in an emergency?

A note about potassium iodide. In 2002, Westchester County also initiated a program to distribute potassium iodide (KI) tablets to adults and children in the EPZ. Potassium iodide is a simple chemical compound commonly added to table salt to make iodized salt. It protects the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine from nuclear fallout by saturating all of the iodine-binding sites in the thyroid gland and helps to protect it from cancer.

Tablets (one per individual) were made available in the municipal offices of most communities, although the village of Buchanan and the town of Cortlandt did not directly participate in the program. Potassium iodide tablets may be purchased at selected pharmacies. In a nuclear emergency, if you do not have access to potassium iodide tablets, you can swab your forearm or abdomen with 8 milliliters (slightly less than two teaspoons) of 2% iodine from your medicine chest.

To be effective potassium iodide must be taken within a matter of hours after any exposure--too short a time to order it over the Internet after an incident. I urge every reader to stockpile a potassium iodide tablet for each person in the family. Those who have already purchased a supply of tablets of this chemical should check the expiration date; fortunately it has a reasonably long shelf life of several years. Pets also require potassium iodide protection. Dosages for children and pets should be adjusted according to size and weight.

There's a discrepancy between Westchester's and Putnam's dosage information about potassium iodide. On its website, Westchester says that the KI tablet should be ingested within 6 hours of exposure; Putnam County specifies that it should be taken within 3-4 hours of exposure.

The Croton Dam. Of the approximately 77,000 dams in the United States, the Federal Government is responsible for only about five percent of those dams whose failure could result in loss of life or significant property damage. The remaining dams belong to state and local governments, utilities and corporate or private owners.

It is called the "eighth wonder of the world" by local boosters and is reputed to be the largest cut-stone structure in the world after the Great Pyramid at Gizeh in Egypt, the Croton Dam is sometimes called the Cornell Dam, after Aaron Cornell, whose land for the dam was bought by New York City's Board of Water Supply. It is now maintained and protected by the City's Department of Environmental Protection.

Measuring 297 feet high and 1,017 feet in length, the Croton Dam was begun in 1892 and completed in 1907, replacing an earlier dam that now lies beneath its surface. It was designed by Alphonse Fteley (1837-1903), a well-known hydraulic and sanitary engineer who did not live to see its completion.

A massive masonry gravity dam, it depends on its enormous weight and mass to resist the tremendous hydrostatic pressure exerted by the reservoir behind it. It is not known how this structure would react to seismic forces. However, East Coast earthquakes do not produce visible surface disruptions, unlike the famous San Andreas fault in California. Because the crust on the East Coast is cooler and more rigid, earthquakes here tend to be felt over a larger area than those on the West Coast. Conditions on the East Cost allow seismic waves to travel farther but they do it with less force.

One lurking threat to the Croton Dam may lie in the ten back-up dams that form part of the Croton Reservoir System. Should one or more of these dams fail, a large volume of water might be released, causing the Croton Dam to overflow. The power of fast-moving water can be awesome.

The elevation of the Croton Dam's spillway is 196 feet above sea level. Any large volume of water released into the Croton River Gorge would result in considerable destruction, carrying away bridges, homes, schools, churches and natural vegetation in its path in quite the same way as the smaller original Croton Dam did when it gave way in 1841.

Residences on Mt. Airy and on the southern elevation of the Croton Gorge would be spared. Upon leaving the narrow confines of the Croton River Gorge and reaching the thickly settled areas of Croton and Harmon, the wall of water would fan out but would nevertheless inundate and sweep away everything in its path like a giant bulldozer. Nordica Hill opposite the Croton Free Library and the area around Sunset Park would be tiny islands barely poking above an angry, surging sea.

Croton Manor would also disappear, as would Crotonville. The topography of Croton Point would be changed. The Metro North rail yards, at an elevation of 17 feet above sea level, would be covered with sand, gravel and the debris of human occupation forced ahead of the wall of water. Through train traffic would be impossible. Without an early warning system in place the loss of life would be tremendous.

Those of us who live in the shadow of the Croton Dam fervently hope the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency get their act together before any disaster scenarios involving the dam are played out in our corner of Westchester.


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