ANNAPOLIS – The failure of emergency management during Hurricane Katrina has been a lesson for government agencies in Maryland, which are now updating their plans in order to better prepare for such a disaster, officials told a legislative committee Wednesday.
“It dawned on all of us during Hurricane Katrina that if we had a situation in Maryland, we’d have to depend on emergency services and coordination between governments,” said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, chair of the Environmental Matters Committee. “So the question becomes, what are we doing and what can we be doing to make sure we’re not making bad decisions that could result in devastation for our citizens?”
John W. Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said Maryland has already drawn lessons from Hurricane Katrina:
Planning needs to be coordinated between levels of government; evacuation orders must be clear and given in enough time to react; and no matter how much planning is done, there will always be a certain percentage of people who will refuse to leave, he said.
If a hurricane were headed for Ocean City, for example, emergency workers would need 30 to 50 hours of notice in order to effectively evacuate a large number of people, he said.
John M. Contestabile, director of the Office of Engineering for the Department of Transportation, said Maryland has advantages in preparing for a hurricane.
All levels of government have been cooperating on emergency plans, he said, and because Maryland borders on Washington, D.C, “our interaction with the Federal government is better. We have a great day to day working relationship with all the groups we would need in an emergency situation.”
And Droneburg said that only a small percentage of Marylanders live below sea level, so not as much flooding would occur as in states with more low-lying areas.
People who live along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean shorelines would be at some risk if there were a large hurricane, and may need to be evacuated, he said.
“In Maryland, we’re lucky that a safe place wouldnÕt be as far away from their homes, and there wouldn’t be as many people who would need to move” as compared to Hurricane Katrina, he said.
In a densely populated area such as Ocean City, though, up to 300,000 people could need to be evacuated.
McIntosh said she believed the disastrous results of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans “could happen in any almost any urban area in the country because of the number of people who are transit-dependent and donÕt have cars.”
In Baltimore, for example, she said, one out of every three people does not own a car, which means more than 200,000 people would need to rely on mass transit to evacuate.
Droneburg said the Emergency Management Agency has considered special needs populations, such as those without a vehicle, and local plans do include public transportation.
As recently as this week, Contestabile said, the Department of Transportation held meetings with operators of buses, school buses and motor coaches to discuss how they could be used during a disaster.
“We’ve been looking at evacuation plans for years,” he said. “Two-thirds of the state is covered by a plan.”
The most sophisticated plan is the Hurricane Evacuation Plan for the Eastern Shore, he said, but many other locations around the state also have completed or nearly completed plans.
Contestabile said initial plans for the Baltimore region have been completed but are being updated. Planning is underway in the Washington area, but has just been started in Calvert County, which includes Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant.
Droneburg said evacuation plans have been in place in Maryland since long before the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina.
“What they have caused us to do is take a closer look at things that have occurred to help us make changes,” he said. “Technology changes as time goes on, highways change . . . We’re in the process of updating our plans.”
Robert S. Summers, director of Water Management for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said in terms of resource management, the state needs to be sure that the infrastructure is properly constructed, maintained and is ready for a disaster event.
Prevention is the key, he said, and that is why the state has such a rigorous dam inspection program and has one of “the best storm water programs in the country.”
“The basic idea is to maintain the natural environment so that there are many places for the runoff to go,” he said. Also using things such as storm water ponds or green roofs can help reduce water runoff, he said. “The time to worry about safety is now,” he said. “Once it’s raining, it is too late.”