West Virginia hosts evacuation conference

Safety event to tackle what to do if crisis struck capital region

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A terrorism attack sparking the evacuation of several million people from the Washington, D.C., area is enough of a concern that West Virginia is hosting a regional conference on the subject today and tomorrow.

After all, Martinsburg is less than 100 miles from the nation's capital, the same for Baltimore. The Baltimore-Washington area is home to perhaps 7 million people and places like West Virginia and Pennsylvania might have to take in many of them in an attack.

"How do you take care of them? What do you do?" asked Joe Thornton, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. "It has the potential to be devastating."

West Virginia got a taste of what it's like to plan for an evacuation on the fly a year ago, when the state agreed to take in Hurricane Katrina survivors. "We had to come up with an operation and a plan in less than 24 hours," Mr. Thornton said. "Nothing works as planned."

The agency hopes the Urban-Rural Evacuation Conference lays the groundwork for a regional plan for dealing with a mass invasion, he said.

About 100 public safety officials from West Virginia, Delaware, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and federal agencies are expected to attend the two-day event at Canaan Valley Resort in Davis.

Most of the confab, aside from speeches by Public Safety Secretary James Spears and W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin today, will go on behind closed doors.

Other scheduled speakers include representatives of the federal Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the Department of Homeland Security's under secretary of preparedness, George Foresman.

West Virginia sees a terror attack in the Washington area as a "huge risk," Mr. Thornton said, though the level of danger is likely to be discussed at the event. "The folks out there that do not call themselves our allies are out plotting every day," he said.

If some of those enemies manage to pull off a large-scale attack in the nation's capital, evacuees would stream north, south and -- West Virginia believes -- east through the state's Eastern Panhandle.

"Even if we get a fourth of them, you're still looking at doubling our population in a matter of moments," Mr. Thornton said. "It has the potential for chaos."

The thrust of the conference, however, won't be on terror risks, but on such topics as how to establish a way for states to talk to each other and pool resources amid a crisis, Mr. Thornton said. "We've been discussing this for the better part of a year," he said "There's so many factors to consider."


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