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Agencies planning for worst in Cities

Picture this: You get home from work one day and check your voice-mail messages. Among them is a "reverse 911" call prompted by an accident at the Monticello nuclear power plant 40 miles to the northwest. You're instructed to leave the Twin Cities -- immediately.

No natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina threatens a massive evacuation in Minnesota of the kind that was required on the Gulf Coast. But other threats abound. Some, like nuclear accidents or terrorist attacks, might require wholesale evacuation of the Twin Cities area.

And the Minnesota departments of transportation and public safety are drafting just such an evacuation plan for the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area -- just to be safe.

The plan is scheduled for completion in November. It anticipates events ranging from accidents to terrorism. It may include reversing traffic on some interstates or posting special routes to facilitate a quick exit from the city centers.

But the planners also are making plans for an emergency that doesn't allow time for a lengthy, orderly evacuation.

Consider what would happen, for instance, if a tank car filled with liquefied chlorine were to rupture near the Minneapolis water treatment plant in Columbia Heights.

Minneapolis emergency planners have conducted just such a drill. Their conclusion: "We would have to evacuate most of Minneapolis" within a matter of hours, said Kristi Rollwagen, deputy Minneapolis fire chief in charge of emergency preparedness. "And we said, 'Impossible.' "

The city couldn't be emptied in time, Rollwagen said. Just think about evacuating a retirement home, she said; it would take hours. "So now we look at options such as can we shelter these people in place."

These kinds of scenarios also keep the state's emergency planners up at night:

Natural gas pipelines rupture in the middle of winter, knocking out heat for thousands of homes.

A disease spreads rapidly through the population, swamping the health care system.

A suicide bomber explodes a dirty bomb under the Hennepin County Government Center, crippling some government operations and damaging nearby communications equipment.

Some of the scenarios would require a large-scale evacuation; others might require people to stay indoors.

Walk, don't drive

Each local government has its own emergency response plan.

Many aspects of the Twin Cities evacuation plan -- such as the location of communications equipment -- will be kept secret to keep terrorists from exploiting our vulnerabilities, said Sonia Pitt, MnDOT's director of homeland security and emergency management.

University of Minnesota researchers developed "geo-spatial" software that was used in developing the rough draft of the Twin Cities evacuation plan. Prof. Shashi Shekhar and doctoral candidate Qingsong Lu, both with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, had earlier tested the software on a simulated evacuation of a 10-mile radius around the Monticello nuclear power plant. They calculated that their software would shorten the evacuation time by 40 percent, to about two hours and 40 minutes.

One surprise discovery in crafting the Twin Cities evacuation plan is that having able-bodied people walk the first mile before they are evacuated may actually be faster than having everyone jump into a vehicle.

Shekhar was part of a group that evaluated the evacuation plans for New Orleans about a year ago. The group's members found that no matter how much they tweaked the city's plan, they couldn't get significant improvements because they were limited by the number of routes in and out, Shekhar said. "What it means is that when we build new roads we have to look beyond just congestion for the commuters," he said. "We have to also see that in emergencies, can we get people out in time."

Emergency response managers in Minnesota say they are ahead of the curve, that they regularly win plaudits from the federal government and other states for their planning. But like their colleagues across the country, they'll be studying what went wrong in New Orleans , said Jim Halstrom, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers.

Communication key

"As you probably know, communications are the first thing to go down," he said. "And you don't just need communications for your [emergency] responders. If something happened in any local jurisdiction, there's 48 different agencies or more involved in the response to it," he said, citing local, state, federal and nonprofit agencies.

Halstrom said an 800-megahertz communications system that allows emergency personnel to talk to one another is a big improvement. It's in place in much of the Twin Cities, he said, but it will be a while before it makes it out to such rural areas as Chisago County, where Halstrom works as the emergency management director.

In New Orleans, so many communications towers went down that it blacked out nearly everyone.

But it's hard to imagine an event that would cause such wide-scale havoc here, Halstrom said. "We have traditional threats or hazards that have pretty much stayed constant."

Those threats primarily involve severe weather, such as blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes and floods.

"Our worst case would be like a chemical type of attack," Halstrom said. "Another thing we're working real hard on throughout the state in exercising and planning for is public health outbreaks, either bioterrorism or natural pandemic health outbreaks," he added.

The Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers started 45 years ago with 87 members from each of the state's counties. It now has 333 members, including emergency management specialists and many law enforcement and fire personnel. The group's annual meeting, scheduled for Sept. 18 to 21 at Breezy Point, will include training on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, school crises, and command and control issues. "It's a very, very busy training program this year," Halstrom said.

Emergency management personnel train constantly in tabletop scenarios and full-blown field exercises, said Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. But as Hurricane Katrina proved, there's always more to learn.

"You can practice and practice and practice," Smith said, "but until you have the real thing, you never know quite how it's going to work."

Dan Browning is at dbrowning@startribune.com.

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