Katrina prompts new look at state's chemical disaster planning

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:55

    LINDEN-This blue-collar bastion is part of an industrial corridor that federal authorities refer to as "the most dangerous two miles in America," with a mix of chemical plants, oil refineries, rail lines and heavily traveled highways. Shoehorned into all of this are residential areas where people live just yards away from huge tanks holding everything from gasoline to highly toxic chemicals. If a chemical disaster were to happen in New Jersey, either through an accident or a terrorist attack, there's a good chance it could happen here. And the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf region is prompting officials in New Jersey to dust off years-old emergency plans to see if they'd still work. The New Jersey Turnpike brings thousands of cars and trucks past refineries and chemical plants that could easily be attacked by terrorists with a shoulder-fired missile or grenade. On local streets here in Linden, motorists can drive to within 30 yards or so of tanks holding millions of gallons of gasoline, guarded only by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire -- no match for a car or truck bomb. Directly across the street from one of these refineries, 88-year-old Helen Pointek was sweeping the first fall leaves from her sidewalk. She said Hurricane Katrina _ and the chaos that ensued after it -- made her wonder what would happen if there were a catastrophe at one of the nearby chemical plants or refineries. ``I don't know what I would do,'' she said. ``At my age, I probably would just drop dead. I do worry about those tanks.'' According to a study earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service, there are seven chemical plants in New Jersey where a terrorist attack or catastrophic accident could kill more than 1 million people. At least one is just a few blocks down the road from Pointek's house. The study also counted seven other plants in New Jersey where fatalities could range from 100,000 to just under a million. Pointek, who gardens and does oil paintings, has lived in her neighborhood in Linden's Tremley Point section for 60 years. She recalled a massive explosion at the nearby Standard Oil Co. refinery in 1970 that residents learned of only when the entire night sky lit up with a brilliant orange glow, walls shook and windows shattered. No one was killed, but the blast injured 30 people and rattled homes 40 miles away, causing millions of dollars in damage. ``They never told us about any explosion,'' she said. ``No siren, no alarm, no nothing.'' She thought about trying to leave the neighborhood, but the main road in and out of the area was jammed with emergency vehicles and the curious. So she stayed put, and nothing serious happened to her house, where the blue plaster statue of the Virgin Mary sits slightly askew but still looks beatifically out at the tanks. Pointek recently gave up her driver's license due to declining eyesight, and would have to be evacuated in an emergency. She has called City Hall several times since Hurricane Katrina, and was assured someone would get her and others who needed help in an emergency. Linden's emergency management plan calls for private and municipal ambulances to evacuate residents who need help, but they would have to call a police dispatcher first, Police Chief John Miliano said. The city has no process for elderly or sick residents to register with authorities so that someone would automatically come looking for them in an emergency, but the chief said the idea intrigued him and he would look into the possibility. Police have allowed between 100 to 200 residents to leave keys to their homes at police headquarters so that officers can check on them in emergencies, Miliano said. The city has designated emergency gathering points where its nearly 40,000 residents would assemble to be evacuated. In Pointek's case, that would be a nearby senior citizens' center, or a firehouse a few blocks up the street from her home. Additional help could be called in from county and state authorities. Union County has contracted with bus companies to provide commercial and school buses to carry evacuees from a disaster. And acting Gov. Richard J. Codey could declare a state of emergency that would enable authorities to commandeer NJ Transit buses and even trains for evacuations. Union County's emergency management plan covers chemical disasters, but possible responses vary widely based on the vast array of potential chemical agents that might be involved _ some mildly harmful, others lethal. Depending on what was involved, in what quantities, and in which direction the wind was blowing and how fast, residents might be told to simply ``shelter in place.'' That involves shutting doors and windows, turning off air conditioners and sealing windows to the greatest extent possible because it would be dangerous to move large numbers of people through a hazardous vapor cloud, said Ben LaGanga, the county's emergency management director. If evacuations were called for, authorities would use buses to take victims to outdoor decontamination tents set up far enough away from the disaster to be safe, but close enough to quickly cleanse them, he said. Schools and churches are designated in each municipality as potential emergency shelters. He recently met with his county's emergency planners to try to learn from the lessons of Katrina. ``I watch what happened and I keep asking myself, `Why weren't those people evacuated?''' LaGanga said. Codey also met with state police and counterterrorism officials, ordering them to review the state's contingency plans.