Hurricane Katrina hit and Virginia wanted to help. The states neighboring Louisiana and Mississippi couldn't take all the evacuees from the ravaged Gulf Coast, so emergency officials from the commonwealth swung into action.
An emergency shelter was set up to handle 1,000 evacuees at Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard base southwest of Richmond. Beds were readied, food was brought in and medical and social services were summoned. This was not a drill.
Or so everyone thought. Gulf evacuees were sent to various sites around the country, including the D.C. Armory in Washington. The Virginia center stayed open for possible victims of Hurricanes Ophelia and Rita. But "Town Pickett," as it was quickly dubbed, never received a single person.
Still, state officials said they learned plenty from the experience, particularly about the array of needs that people have when their lives have been turned upside down. So Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has assigned George Mason University's Center for Health Policy, Research and Ethics in Fairfax to develop the first state plan for evacuation response. He also ordered a report on the lessons learned from launching Town Pickett and getting it ready for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
"This was the first time the nation had to displace so many people," said Peggy Jo Maddox, deputy director of the George Mason health policy center. "All the states had to scramble. So we're going to document what it takes to start up an evacuation center, because no one has ever had to do this before."
As Virginia quickly pulled together Town Pickett, it had the advantage of watching evacuation centers that had been started in Texas and elsewhere, Maddox said. It also had the American Red Cross on hand to help document the new arrivals.
Still, the variety of potential needs was daunting. "You can have people who are in physical distress," Maddox said. "You don't know if criminals are there. You've got elderly people, people in wheelchairs, people who need medicines, children who may be separated from their parents. You've got to prepare to house them, clothe them, feed them, provide showers, laundry, cots, linens. It's literally reproducing a city overnight."
In addition to the evacuees, someone has to oversee volunteers and helpers. "You can't have just anybody taking care of kids," Maddox said. "You have to have a process to check out volunteers, and a place to house them, too."
Warner put Jane H. Woods, the state's secretary of health and human resources, in charge of assembling the evacuation center. Maddox said one lesson learned was the importance of having a cabinet-level official who can marshal resources quickly and cut through bureaucracies.
"Woods had the ability to energize people and provide structure," Maddox said. "People knew what they were doing."
Security was another important aspect. The National Guard was to handle its base, the Virginia State Police was to oversee security in the area and local police and fire departments were ready for an influx of activity. The University of Virginia medical school provided an emergency medical team, and local schools and hospitals were ready to pitch in with food.
"Because people thought this was really going to happen," Maddox said, "hundreds of people were there waiting for the plane to land. That's more than just a drill, that's when you get real experience."
Kae Livsey, a research associate at the George Mason center, was at Town Pickett with the volunteers and guardsmen waiting for evacuees. "It's a testament to Virginia's ability to respond," she said. "There wasn't a lot of bickering."
Improving communication with the disaster area would be an area to work on, Livsey said. Those waiting at Town Pickett "couldn't get good information coming out of the area. It was frustrating for folks to not have that information."
Transportation planning centered on the need for alternatives, Maddox said. Would planes carrying evacuees be too big for the airport runways in southern Virginia and have to be diverted to Richmond? How would the evacuees then get to their destination? "The big issue is you plan for one thing, then need a secondary plan," Maddox said. "There's a lot of scurrying around."
Livsey said that "emergency preparedness is an area of expertise we're building" at George Mason, which is why the health policy center was chosen to write a report on evacuation response. She said she hopes the report will be added to the state's existing disaster and emergency response plan.
"We have the ability to understand public policy processes and social services systems," Maddox said of the center. "And as a university, we're asked to be objective and thorough in what we do." She said the health policy center was gathering "after-action" reports from participants at Town Pickett, to learn how to ease cooperation between agencies and smooth financial and communication glitches as well as document items for possible reimbursement by state or federal emergency agencies.
Maddox said the center plans to have the report ready by December.