In the face of a terrorist attack or natural disaster, Fairfax County leaders would order most residents to shelter in place but would also have more than a thousand school buses ready if they were needed to evacuate people to shelters or sites where medicine might be dispensed, County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said yesterday.
"I want our residents to know that when bad things happen, the county will respond and work 24/7 until we have resolved the situation," Griffin told the Board of Supervisors during a 90-minute presentation on emergency preparedness and planning.
His remarks were the most comprehensive response so far to last month's directive from leaders of the Washington area's largest governments to evaluate their emergency plans after Hurricane Katrina. Local leaders have said that the ineffective federal response to the flooding in New Orleans has convinced them that they must depend on local responses in an emergency.
Katrina and the chaotic evacuation on Texas highways before Hurricane Rita reinforced Fairfax emergency officials' belief that "all emergency responses begin at the local level," Griffin said. Still, the county would turn to state and federal government for assistance, and Griffin predicted that Fairfax's proximity to the nation's capital would make it hard for the federal government to ignore such requests.
The Fairfax plan, developed in 2002 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, underscores a reality that became clear to Washington area planners after the hurricanes: An evacuation of a county of 399 square miles and 1 million people would be nearly impossible. So residents would be told to shelter in place with a three-day supply of food and water, clothing, medication and other personal items. A guide to getting this kit together has been printed in seven languages and is available at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/emergency/guide.htm.
In a disaster, more than two dozen agencies would deal with public safety, transportation, public health, schools, water and power supplies. The county would rely on about 1,600 school buses to get people to shelters at schools, if necessary, or to sites where medicine would be distributed in the case of a bioterrorism attack.
Griffin responded directly to the widespread perception that no one was in charge in New Orleans: In Fairfax, he would be squarely in charge and have an experienced team of emergency managers under him. When Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason) told Griffin that she was worried he would take on too many responsibilities and asked, "If you got hit by a bus tomorrow, who would be making these decisions?" Griffin assured her that a strong chain of command would be in place.
After the briefing, the county's top emergency response officials took reporters to what would be the nerve center in an emergency: a state-of-the-art office in the county government building that opened last year and has been used in previous situations.
To save pets in a disaster, a topic on many owners' minds since images of abandoned cats and dogs in New Orleans flashed across television screens, planners suggest keeping an emergency supply kit for animals, including a photograph. A list of kennels and places to board should be on hand. If residents were evacuated, county officials said they would make every attempt to accommodate pets in the designated shelters.
Since Sept. 11, Fairfax has received about $50 million in federal and state money for emergency planning. Almost 20 full-time workers are devoted to preparedness, including a cyber security officer to help protect the county's computer system from attack.
But Griffin acknowledged huge challenges in reaching out to more than 1 million residents -- many of whom do not speak English -- to alert them of an emergency. Alerts via radio, cell phone, satellite television and other technologies are constantly being refined, as are communications with neighboring counties. The "old-fashioned bullhorn" may turn out to be just as effective, he said.
In other action yesterday, supervisors approved a temporary $1 surcharge for taxicabs to offset rising gasoline prices. The surcharge, effective today, will expire Nov. 21, when the board will make a final decision, after a public hearing, on a request for a $1.50 surcharge. The county approved an increase in July in upfront, distance and waiting time rates. Since then, gasoline prices have risen approximately 50 cents a gallon to about $3.
The board also gave final approval to a broadened tax-reduction program for the elderly and the disabled, made possible by a surplus created by high revenue from business and real estate transaction taxes. County aid will now be at the most generous level allowed by the state, available to those with incomes of up to $72,000 a year if their assets outside their primary residence are worth $340,000 or less.