Members of a House District subcommittee yesterday alternately poked fun at and sharply criticized federal plans to evacuate 2.8 million Washington area residents, many of them by shuttle bus, to the hills of Virginia and West Virginia in the event of impending nuclear attack.
"I have some very serious doubts about the efficacy of these programs," said Rep. Stanford E. Parris (R-Va.). "I don't mean to be facetious, but can you really imagine the typical bus driver, after he loads his own family on the first bus down, which I can assure you he will do, then you're going to try to talk him into turning around and going back? When a nuclear holocaust is presumably about to occur?"
Parris and Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), chairman of the House District subcommittee on government operations and metropolitan affairs, listened with evident skepticism as spokesmen for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the development of evacuation plans nationwide, and District emergency evacuation planners defended their work.
Twenty-eight cities around the country, including Alexandria, have already rejected crisis relocation plans as costly and unworkable. However, agency spokesman John E. Dickey described the plans as "preliminary" and the best that could be expected after years of "benign neglect" of civil defense.
The $252 million budget FEMA has requested for next year to expand and accelerate evacuation planning would more than double the agency's current planning staff, leading some to criticize the agency's "Crisis Relocation Plans" yesterday as little more than a very expensive federal job program.
Alexandria's plan, the first developed for the Washington area, was described yesterday by Alexandria Vice Mayor-elect James P. Moran as an "Alice-in-Wonderland" scenario. Moran also testified that state planners have threatened his city with loss of its civil defense funding if it refuses to cooperate.
The District's evacuation plan, which is still in preliminary form and won't be released to District council members for at least two years, relocates Washington residents to rural Virginia and West Virginia, often by way of the same or intersecting routes scheduled to be used by suburban evacuees. When asked if he thought there would be trouble getting all of Washington's residents over the often-clogged Potomac River bridges, Dickey replied that 450,000 people leave the city every weekday evening. With the help of "equipment to push stalled cars into the water" the bridge would be no obstacle to the evacuation, he said.
The 12,359 residents of downtown Washington are supposed to drive six hours to rural Bath County, Va., described by one D.C. planner yesterday as having "a golf course, a beautiful hotel The Homestead and that's about it."
"That means my colleague from Alexandria might wind up on the golf course," Gray said, nodding to Parris.
"That's almost 1,000 people per hole!" Parris rejoined. "What do we eat, what do we wear, where do we sleep?" Parris also expressed doubt about the planned evacuation of 19,000 Alexandrians, packing credit cards and canned food, to the tiny town of Webster Springs, W.Va. "Can you build a tree house for 19,000 people?" Parris asked.
Parris asked the federal planners whether the ability of the United States and the Soviet Union to retarget their nuclear weapons in as little as 20 minutes could diminish the substantial number of lives federal planners insist crisis relocation plans can save. "It would," Dickey said.
"Maybe it's a fraud," Parris said of the relocation plan. "I wonder if, in fact, all it does is promote a false sense of security? Maybe we ought to abandon the whole thing."