Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Learning from Japan

By now we have all heard of, and been shocked by, the devastation of the natural disaster in Japan. We watch it daily on the nightly news and shake our heads at the images of utter destruction, human misery and suffering. Then, there is the added peril of the growing nuclear radiation threat from the damaged power plants.

I heard from a friend, that some folks on our west coast are fearful that enough fallout and radiation could drift over here and cause wide-spread damage to property, crops and people. I am not so sure that it will happen but it could. But what about Lexington's preparedness for a similar sized disaster.

Way back in 1967, when we were near (or at) the height of the Cold War, Lexington had a plan for community shelters to protect residents from the dangers of “fallout”. This plan had its own section in that year's Comprehensive Plan and Lexington had many buildings designated, signed and stocked for such emergencies. The plan was simple in concept, but really quite simplistic.

At the time (1965), there were only 185 buildings usable for shelters and they could hold approximately 140,000 people out of an average daily population of 155,000. In dealing with fallout, maybe there were too few public spaces allotted but what if we were considering a massive earthquake along the New Madrid? Where would we go for community shelters then?

The “plan” divided the city into four areas; Downtown, UK Campus, VA Hospital and US Public Hospital (now the Federal Prison). Now, here is the fun part, all people assigned to the first three areas were REQUIRED to walk to the shelters since the streets “must be left completely free for police, fire and other authorized emergency vehicles”. The people making their way to UK were coming from Loudon Ave., The Shriner's Hospital and nearly out to Turfland Mall. Those going to the VA (that is the old Va on Leestown Rd) had to get through all the industrial areas with limited connecting streets and sometimes no sidewalks.

All of them walking.

I remember the ice storm of 2003 and all the streets that for several days became impassable. Now consider that ,in the event of an earthquake, all the streets would be littered with not just trees and wires, but piles of rubble and trash with no stable structure in sight. What is the plan for community shelters at that point? Where would most people go if their whole subdivision were leveled and they had to walk? I don't think that most of us are prepared for any like that.

The 1973 update of the original plan did little more than revise the numbers and switch from the VA Hospital to all of the major medical centers in town. It appears that some driving would be allowed but that walking would still be the preferred mode to get there. Still, we are talking about “fallout” here and basically nothing else in the way of sheltering during a community disaster.

The Cold War waned and the global threat of nuclear war seems to have let us get beyond planning for such contingencies, so all subsequent Comprehensive Plans have let the idea of “community shelters” just fade into the mist. Nothing of such a magnitude as the events in Japan have happened in our lifetime, in Lexington. We do have to remember that most of our suburban housing is farther than 1/2 mile from the nearest major intersection or shopping center. Planning for major disasters is still ongoing and information is readily available through the Division of Emergency Management (DEM) but the idea of citywide community shelters being identified and easily reached by a the populace is NOT being done.

Where will you go for shelter in instances like these? What would do if it wasn't there? Will you be prepared?

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