Feeling uneasy, you retreat into the house. Three sirens is nothing. Probably a fender bender on the Boulevard. Then you turn on the television.
" should stay calm," the anchor says. "Again, Richmond residents are advised to stay indoors for the time being. If you live in the area shown in green on the map, as a precaution, close all windows and doors. We're hearing now that containment efforts are under way. "
Transfixed by the image on the screen, you hardly hear his words. A poisonous-looking cloud of smoke billows over the familiar twin domes, the domes you remember from fishing trips with your father decades ago.
The phone rings. "David!" you say breathlessly into the receiver.
"This is Doug Wilder, mayor of Richmond," says a recording. "I'd like to inform the citizens of Richmond that you are in no immediate danger from the event at the North Anna Power Station. I ask you to stay indoors for the time being. Children should remain in school. Please stay off the roads so our emergency personnel can get to where they need to be. Listen to the radio for updates. Thank you for your cooperation." Click.
" possible power outages across Central Virginia," the TV news anchor continues. "Officials say they don't yet know the cause of the explosion but haven't ruled out a terrorist act."
You furiously stab the speed dial for David's cell. Beep-beep. Nothing. You dial the kids' school and get only a recorded message. "Mary Munford students are safe," it says. "The school has been ordered to keep students here until notified. Please do not come to the school to pick up your child."
You stand immobile in the kitchen, watching the horrible smoke still swelling lazily on the television screen. And you strain to remember if there's one of those old yellow-and-black fallout shelter signs fastened to the school doors. You don't know. Does it matter? You're going to get the kids. But what if David's stuck downtown? Through the kitchen window you see the Gunnesons next door, jamming two cocker spaniels into the back seat of their Volvo.
"Where are you going?" you shout, trotting onto the back deck. Mr. Gunneson looks up. "Greensboro," he says. "Ann's sister's house." He opens the driver's side door, bends to get in and straightens up again. "You and the kids OK?" he asks.
"I don't know," you say. "I thought they told us to stay at home. Did you hear that?"
"Yeah," he says. "That's what they want you to do." He looks ominously at the blithe blue sky and starts the car. "Well, take care," he says.
Mrs. Gunneson waves through the window. And they're gone.
What would you do? What should you do?
These are questions few people want to think about. Not now. Not here.
This is Richmond, after all. Major disasters rarely happen. There are no grinding fault lines, no coast that could usher in tsunamis, no simmering volcano looming over downtown. And why would a terrorist bother? Washington, D.C., has the federal government. Hampton Roads has the military and the major port.
Sure, the region has seen its share of floods and fires and blizzards. They were bad but not apocalyptic. Not cataclysmic, catastrophic calamities.
But what if something horrible happened? Would you know what to do?
We asked the people who do.
Michael M. Cline is the state coordinator of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. As a member of the state's disaster-response team, he's dealt with 34 presidentially declared disasters, including hurricanes, ice storms and the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
Foremost on Cline's mind these days is the possibility of a deadly flu epidemic, whether avian flu or another virulent new strain. The last severe flu pandemic, in 1918, killed 20 million to 50 million people worldwide. "It'd be difficult for any terrorist to match what nature can do," he says.
Craig Fox Huber is an expert on personal survival, firearms and tactical operations who teaches courses in home defense and survival skills, among other topics. (In the interest of full disclosure, he is the father of a sales representative at Style.)
A Vietnam veteran, a former sheriff's deputy and Marine, Huber takes survival more seriously than most. "I have just survived an awful lot of crap," he says.
He began stockpiling supplies during the Cold War. Today his home in western Virginia is a veritable fortress don't let the plush carpet and picture windows fool you containing food, tools and weapons that would allow him to live comfortably for years if necessary. No one should rely on the government's preparations for emergency, Huber says, because the "government's idea of preparing for worst-case scenarios is based on, one, what the government can afford and, two, the premise that the worst-case scenario never happens."
Benjamin Johnson, coordinator of the city's Office of Emergency Management, vows to always be "honest and straight-up" with the public, he says; spin has no place in emergencies. Johnson took the Richmond job about two years ago, after filling the same position in Glendale, Ariz. He has two children, ages 6 and 11. If catastrophe strikes, he says, "they know that Daddy has to be gone."
Johnson doesn't like the word "worry." But he'll tell you what most occupies his thoughts: a giant hurricane. An incident at the North Anna or Surry nuclear power plants. Or a "mass casualty situation," such as the collapse of a skyscraper or a fiery crash into the stands at a NASCAR race.
There's at least one thing Johnson, Cline and Huber agree on: Citizens bear the responsibility for equipping themselves to survive a disaster. "If we're unprepared and unassuming and in denial," Johnson says, "we're in for a big hurt."
Half of Johnson's job is managing disasters. The other half, he says, is managing expectations. People expect that when they call in times of crisis, help will come quickly. They expect that what they need will be provided. They expect not to be forgotten.
People expect wrong.
Back to the incident at the North Anna Power Station. What should you do?
Richmond lies between two nuclear power plants. North Anna, a 27-year-old facility that produces enough electricity to power 450,000 homes, is about 45 miles northwest. The 33-year-old Surry Power Station, about 55 miles southeast of Richmond, generates enough power for 400,000 homes. Dominion operates both plants.
The Virginia Department of Emergency Management considers Richmond to be out of the danger zone for a "general emergency" the worst kind of emergency at North Anna or Surry. The likelihood of such an emergency occuring is extremely small.
Parts of Louisa and Hanover counties lie within 10 miles of the North Anna nuclear plant. People living in those areas might be ordered to evacuate, depending on the severity of the event for example, if an explosion sends up a plume of radioactive material and the prevailing winds. The 10-mile radius is a conservative estimate, Cline says; the danger zone is probably much smaller than that.
The biggest health concern would be the possible release of radiation, says Dr. Lisa G. Kaplowitz, deputy commissioner of emergency preparedness and response programs at the Virginia Department of Health. People living in the 10-mile zone would be told to take potassium iodide distributed by the health department. This is not an antidote to radiation illness, Kaplowitz cautions, but rather can reduce the risk of later developing thyroid cancer.
Evacuees would be decontaminated, if necessary, in Richmond, and then sheltered here. Using its reverse-911 system, the city would send a message to all residents with instructions. Depending on the situation, it might be an evacuation order or, most likely, an order to "shelter in place." This means staying at home with windows and doors closed and cracks sealed with plastic or wet towels and waiting for further instructions from the radio or television. Children could be kept in school, depending on the time of day and severity of the event.
Undoubtedly, some people would panic and flee the city, Cline says. But he believes those who do would simply go to the homes of friends and family. "You're not going to have 10,000 people on the roads, looking for public shelter."
If Huber still lived in Richmond, he says, he would leave in a heartbeat. The last thing the government wants is to create panic, he says. So of course they'll tell Richmonders they're safe.
First, he says, "I'm heading south and east for a hundred miles," directly away from North Anna. Once out of the area, Huber says, he'll circle around and make for a safe place.
Richmond is located within the 50-mile radius of the "ingestion pathway" the area in which radioactive particles could fall on the ground, fields and livestock for a severe radiological event at North Anna. For this reason, farmers in the area would be advised to shelter their animals indoors, and the produce of the fields would be tested for radiation.
Help from the federal government would be immediate, Cline says. Radiation-monitoring planes and "lots of resources and expertise" would be provided right away.
The biggest problem caused by a major emergency at the North Anna Power Station would be in the immediate vicinity. "You definitely don't want to go into that area," Cline says. Lakeside mansions and marinas would be abandoned for years to come.
The phone rings. For a moment you consider ignoring it and getting up to refill your coffee. But you know she'll just call back.
"Hi, honey," she says.
"Hi, Mom," you say flatly. "How's it going?"
"Honey, have you been watching the Weather Channel?"
"No," you say. "I'm at work, remember?"
"You should take a look," she continues. "They're showing this storm and it looks awfully big."
"They all look big," you say. "It's just the satellite picture."
"They're saying now it's going to smack right into Virginia Beach day after tomorrow," she says. "And then Richmond. Don't you think we should do something?"
Jeez. "You want me to come over and put up the storm windows?"
"Well, I just don't think that's going to help, honey. I mean, it looks like a really big storm and "
"Mom," you cut in. "It's going to be fine. Why don't you come over tomorrow if it still looks bad. OK? Talk to you later." She's still muttering about something as you replace the receiver.
Later that night, after you've settled in to watch "Law & Order," the phone rings again.
"Honey, they're telling people to leave!" she says.
"Huh?" you say.
"Don't you ever watch the news?" she says, scolding. "All these people are leaving out of Tidewater. They told them to evacuate and they're coming here! Just like New Orleans! What if they riot?"
"Enough," you say, a bit more harshly than you'd intended. "Calm down and go to bed. Tomorrow after work, I'll come pick you up and you can stay here, OK?"
She's quiet. "OK," she says. "I'll call you tomorrow."
During the commercial break, you flip to the Weather Channel. And there it is, a malevolent magenta swirl hovering over the Atlantic. Hurricane Felix, they're calling it. Category 4 winds. And for once, it is most definitely not going to hit Florida. The red lines showing its projected path neatly frame Hampton Roads and Richmond.
At work the next day, everyone goes to the grocery store on their lunch break, only to come back and report that Ukrop's has not a shred of toilet paper left. You start to feel uneasy. Is there anything in your pantry besides SpaghettiOs and paprika?
The receptionist has turned the television from "Passions" to the news, where cameras show endless lines of weary people from Norfolk and Virginia Beach filing into the Arthur Ashe Center. "Meanwhile," the anchor reports, "city officials are considering whether to evacuate the city of Richmond."
Evacuate Richmond? So Mom wasn't crazy after all. You tell your boss you have to run out for a minute.
Outside, the September afternoon is deliciously warm, the sky nearly cloudless. You dial Mom's number from your cell and she doesn't pick up. You know she fell asleep in the brown recliner watching "The Price Is Right," like she always does.
But when you get to the house, her blue Skylark is gone.
This is what officials have feared for years: a catastrophic Category 4 or 5 hurricane making direct landfall on Hampton Roads.
Heretofore, such major hurricanes have hit North Carolina first, losing power as they churn over land. "That's been the saving grace for many, many years now," Cline says.
When emergency officials see that historic storm bearing down on Hampton Roads, they'll most likely issue an evacuation order. That means more than 1.5 million people could flee the area, with many heading straight for Richmond.
If they came today, chaos would ensue. Johnson found out only recently that the official evacuation plans for Washington, D.C., and Hampton Roads both include Richmond as a destination. "That's wonderful and great that you want to," he told both cities' emergency planners, "but you haven't included us in your plans." Richmond's infrastructure can't handle such a massive influx, he says.
Evacuees to Richmond would be housed primarily in the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center on Boulevard, the Richmond Coliseum and the Greater Richmond Convention Center. But those places could house only about 45,000 people combined, Johnson says. Other potential shelters are Huguenot and George Wythe high schools, as well as Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center.
This hypothetical historic storm could also hit Richmond head on after walloping the coast. If it decreases to a Category 2 or 3, Cline says, it would bring extremely high winds to the area, toppling trees and damaging homes much like Hurricane Isabel did two years ago.
If a repeat of Isabel occurred, Richmonders would be advised to go to city shelters if their homes are vulnerable. If a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hit Richmond, "we would probably tell people to leave," Johnson says.
Err on the side of caution, Huber says. Avoid interstates. Get a good state road atlas so you can follow country roads to get to your destination.
"You need to know the ins and outs of five routes out of [Richmond]," Huber says. Why five? Things come in threes, he says. Expect that three routes will be blocked. And you want more than one alternative so think of two more possibilities.
Richmond's official evacuation plan sends people to Charlottesville, where they would be housed at the University of Virginia's University Hall or, if they needed to go farther, the coliseum at the Roanoke Civic Center.
What about those who can't get themselves out?
In Johnson's office lies a prototype sign never before seen in Richmond, a sign printed in red with a picture of a bus and the many-armed swirl that means hurricane. This sign is one of 10 that will mark hurricane evacuation bus pickup sites, the places where people without their own transportation can come to be moved out of the city.
A general rule of thumb, Johnson says, is that 15 percent of a city's population is dependent on government services. That means 15 percent of Richmonders about 30,000 people would need assistance in evacuating the city during a crisis, because they either are elderly, ill or disabled or simply don't have a car.
City school buses, as well as buses provided by GRTC and the James River Bus Lines, would be called into action to move these people out. But it won't be easy, Johnson warns.
"We could probably move about 15[,000] to 18,000 people in 72 hours. That's with all the resources that we have here, in the city, available to us right now. Can we get additional resources? Yes, but we need time. So 72 hours would be the minimum, but we still don't get all 30,000 people out. If we had more time, like if we had five days, it'd be better."
Who gets five days' notice for a hurricane evacuation? In the end, people without a way to get themselves out of the city may be better off staying put.
"If you can't avoid the threat," Huber says, "be prepared to deal with it." Fill every available container with drinking water. Fill up your gas tank. Have plenty of food and fuel, such as propane for a grill or stovetop range. Have a hand-cranked radio. For recommendations on what items to include in your own emergency kit, visit the state Web site www.vaemergency.com.
Doing these small things to prepare yourself is essential, Johnson says. "If you don't do that, the people who really need to be helped can't get the help."
"A girl in our class died yesterday," Alisa says, with all the solemnity a 6-year-old can muster.
"Died?" you say, startled. "That's sad. Was she your friend?"
"Kinda," Alisa says. "She threw up on Monday. Right in class! It was gross. So she went home. And then Mrs. Coleman said she died."
You look hard at your daughter. She does have an active imagination.
"I'm going to call the school and find out what happened," you say.
"OK," she says.
But the school is no help. Yes, a student died Wednesday. No, they can't say why. Yes, they'll send out a letter to parents if it's anything serious. No, there's no danger to other students.
You hang up unsatisfied. Seems like they should cancel school until they know what happened. What if it's TB or something? But TB doesn't kill children, not in three days. Maybe that poor little girl already had something wrong with her.
"You're staying home from school tomorrow," you tell Alisa that evening. She pitches a fit because tomorrow they're making posters for the first-grade play. You almost relent. But you don't want her catching whatever that poor child had. The next morning, Alisa sulks until "SpongeBob" comes on at 8.
At 10 you bundle her into the car so you can go to Lowe's. The radio's turned low, but your ears catch the word "flu" and "student." Your hand darts to the dial.
Authorities are investigating two deaths from a flulike illness of students at you stiffen Thomas Jefferson High School. Not the girl in Alisa's class, then. Three kids in Richmond, dying so suddenly in the same week?
You look over at your daughter. With her finger she's tracing a face on the window, drawing eyes and a smile in the fog from her breath.
"How you feeling, honey?" you ask.
She glances over. "Fine," she says.
You feel foolish, a little, but you can't shake the urge to take Alisa out of town for a long weekend. Somewhere west, somewhere in the mountains. Take her to see that waterfall your dad used to take you to, with all the rocks to climb on. You don't get paid till next Friday, but you could afford to get a motel for a couple of nights.
You pass the Lowe's and turn instead into the Kroger lot. Best get some bread for the trip, sandwich stuff, some of those fruit snacks Alisa likes so much.
"We're gonna go on a trip, honey," you say to her. "How 'bout that? Just gotta clear it with your mom."
You grab the stuff you need and head to the express lane. The woman in line behind you starts coughing violently, bending over and hacking. You pull Alisa close.
Then you call Michelle on the phone. It's her weekend to have Alisa, but you explain you want to take her away for a few days, to keep her safe.
Michelle is skeptical. "Is she sick?"
"No," you say. "I just don't want her around other kids."
"Yeah, I heard about those kids at TJ," she says. "It happened in D.C. too, you know. A bunch of kids got sick at school. But it doesn't make any sense to leave Richmond. What are you going to do if Alisa gets sick and you're a hundred miles from a hospital?"
"I don't know," you say. "She says she feels fine. I just want to be careful, that's all."
Through the phone you hear a familiar little huff. You know Michelle is rolling her eyes.
"Fine," you say. "Fine. I'll stay here. But I'm keeping her home from school. Come get her on Friday."
Richmond, Johnson says, is one of the United States' 126 Metropolitan Medical Response System cities. "We have pharmaceuticals here in the city to treat any bioterrorism or any type of medical disaster that would could possibly happen," he says.
Except for a flu epidemic.
Influenza viruses are always mutating in small increments; researchers call this "drift." That's why new flu vaccines are released every year, to combat the newest, dominant strains that are going around.
Occasionally, however, a virus will exhibit a dramatic mutation, called a "shift," that changes its nature radically. A shift in avian flu virus, for instance, may allow the virus to be transmitted from human to human. And that's very bad news.
If a new, deadly flu virus showed up, it would take three to six months to develop a vaccine to counter it, and then months more to distribute doses. Virginia might receive 50,000 doses to start with, Cline says, but those would be allocated primarily to health-care workers in contact with flu victims.
"People are not going to be happy, because there just won't be enough resources, at least not early in an epidemic," says Kaplowitz with the health department.
More doses would become available, but slowly enough to treat 1 percent of the state's population per week. The state would generally follow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' national pandemic plan in deciding who to vaccinate first, but much of the decision-making would have to occur at the state and local levels, Kaplowitz says.
After essential health-care workers, the first people to receive the vaccine would be those who are at high risk for contracting the flu, then pregnant women and caregivers of immunocompromised people and infants. Next would be critical public-health emergency responders and government leaders. The last to get the vaccine would be those who are healthy and between 2 and 64 years old.
The state's been planning for years how to deal with an outbreak, Kaplowitz says, arranging everything from volunteer brigades for hospitals to ways to combat misinformation and frustration among the public.
For Richmond, Johnson has bought respiratory masks for health-care workers. He also intends to order a limited stock of Tamiflu, a viral suppressant, which may or may not be effective against avian or other new flus.
Distributing the medicines to the public is a whole other problem. Vaccination sites might be set up around the city or, depending on how contagious the disease is, health workers might make house calls.
On Sept. 30, Richmond emergency workers carried out a practice drill at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center. The hypothetical scenario was public exposure to anthrax, an acutely infectious bacteria.
"We didn't do everything perfectly," Johnson says. "But we found it out during this time." The medical personnel weren't able to administer the mock vaccine as quickly as they expected, for one thing. Spanish-speaking translators were needed. Radio communication was difficult.
And the mock patients waited in an orderly line which, Johnson knows, would never happen in real life. "There was the iBook debacle," he says, referring to the crazed stampede in August that resulted when Henrico County sold its used school computers for $50 each. "And those were iBooks. So imagine what would happen if you really needed something," he says.
That's why citizens can't rely on the government to supply essential medicines, Huber says. "How much Cipro do you have?" he asks. "Get some." He keeps 60 to 90 tabs of the powerful antibiotic with him, he says, and has supplies of other medications as well. Antibiotics are effective only against bacterial, not viral, infections.
Talk to your physician, Huber says, and use the Internet to research your personal 10 biggest health concerns, such as typhus, anthrax or the flu. If a pandemic breaks out, "get the hell out of Dodge," he says. Chances are, he says, if the authorities are announcing the beginnings of an epidemic, it's already too late.
People certainly could flee and isolate themselves, if they had the money and time to do so, Cline says. But most would not be able to abandon their jobs and homes and separate themselves from everyone else for a year or more.
We would have to simply do our best not to get sick. Officials would focus their efforts on managing the influx into hospitals and isolating or quarantining sick individuals to slow the spread of the disease while a vaccine was being developed.
People would be advised to avoid public gatherings, wash their hands often and "stop hugging and kissing so much," Cline says.
Some deadly flu strains, like the 1918 "Spanish flu," may be most lethal to the young and healthy. This means, Cline says, that emergency management and health-care workers could be affected disproportionately.
During the 1918 flu pandemic, about a quarter of the population was affected. More than 500,000 Americans died, and 20 million to 50 million were killed worldwide. One would think that the vast improvements in medical care would significantly reduce the death rate, but that may not be the case. The approximately 126 people in Asia found to be infected with avian flu H5N1 have suffered a 50 percent mortality rate, Cline says. "And they received excellent care."
The Virginia Department of Health predicts a "medium-level" pandemic flu would cause 2,700 to 6,300 deaths in Virginia, with 1.08 million to 2.52 million Virginians becoming sick.
Cline envisions a darker possibility. Apply to Virginia the numbers from the Spanish and avian flus a quarter of the population affected and a 50 percent death rate "and you're looking at a million people dead," he says.
"When you come down to it," Cline says, "there's only so much you can do." S
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