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Dick Thornburgh on: The Issue of Evacuation
Dick Thornburgh Q: You had an enormous responsibility regarding evacuation.

RT: There was really only one responsibility that I had during this entire episode, and that was whether or not to undertaken either a partial or complete evacuation of the some 200,000 residents in the area. That responsibility was a heavy one, indeed, for two reasons. One, if you're dealing in a normal emergency situation, you've got a flood or a fire, you know, you can say, "Well, the water's up to Third Street or Fourth Street and maybe we ought to undertake an evacuation," or a fire may be sweeping through a district and you would want to evacuate the adjacent district. With this kind of nuclear emergency, there was no evidence. It was all kind of invisible. And it was unknown. It was all out there and you had to rely on characterizations made by experts, some of which we already learned were, at best, incomplete in their characterization. The other thing is the problem of evacuations in and of themselves. They're not without substantial risk. When you begin to move a couple of hundred thousand people, and this is the experience I know of my fellow governors that I talked to afterwards who had dealt with hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and what-have-you, there are known risks. People -- aged, infirmed who have difficulty in normal times getting around are being uprooted from their familiar surroundings and taken elsewhere. Even more serious is the problem of people in hospitals, emergency rooms, babies in incubators, and people who are on life support. It's not easy to move those people and there is inevitably going to be some injury, some loss of life, and these were known risks that result from an evacuation. So an evacuation is not something, when it involves a massive group, a couple of hundred thousand people, that you undertake lightly. And you want to be extremely cautious about doing that and be sure the basis you have for it is correct. So this whole question was constantly recycled throughout this entire period of time. "Should we order an evacuation?"

Q: In your mind, what would be that moment or what would be that event that you would say, "Okay. I know the risks, but I've gotta do it?"

RT: Because we mercifully never reached the point of having to seriously consider an evacuation, I don't know that I could lay down any benchmarks that would provide guidance for that. One of the things that we were insistent upon having a best estimate for was what would be the lead time necessary. I mean, what would be the interval of time between our being advised that the situation had deteriorated to the point where an evacuation was necessary and when we could undertake that evacuation. And that varied. The estimates were that for an evacuation within a five-mile area, that time would maybe be two-and-a-half hours, not much time. And I was concerned about the adequacy of our evacuation plans. I mean these were plans that my administration had inherited. We had not evaluated them. And one of the first things I did in trying to prepare us for the eventuality of an evacuation was to ask one of my top people, Bob Wilburn, who was Secretary of Budget and Administration, strangely enough -- not really in charge of emergency management, but he had been experienced in the military and held a number of executive positions in the private sector. And I said, "Give me a read on this. How would this evacuation work?"

His report, to me, on the evacuation plans was chilling, to say the least. One of the things I'll never forget was that he said that under the regimen that had been established by the counties on either side of the river, Dauphin County where Harrisburg was, and Cumberland County, across the river, that their evacuees would meet head-on in the middle of the bridge over which they were to be evacuated. Now it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that that isn't really the way that you want to carry this out. So we set about immediately doing repair work on the existing evacuation plans and I think that by the time those changes had been made, we were prepared to meet the challenge of an evacuation. Mercifully, we didn't have to.

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