Nevada officials consider new disaster scenarios post-Katrina
September 16, 2005
LAS VEGAS – Rather than concern themselves with earthquakes, tornados or the biblical flooding that submerged most of New Orleans, officials in Las Vegas have concentrated their disaster planning on the threat of a terrorist attack.
Five of the hijackers visited Las Vegas before Sept. 11, 2001, and authorities say the city is considered an economic and symbolic target because it is one of the biggest tourism destinations in the nation and home to some of the largest hotel-casinos in the world. Thousands would likely die and one of America’s economic hubs would be crippled if a megaresort were to be toppled.
Now Hurricane Katrina has disaster planners in Nevada dwelling on dire situations and effects that hadn’t been contemplated before the powerful storm ravaged the Gulf Coast.
Clark County Sheriff Bill Young acknowledges he hadn’t considered the possibility that his police force, the state’s largest, could be temporarily paralyzed as happened in New Orleans.
What if people were forced to flee the area in droves when one of the country’s busiest airports was shut down? With few roads leading out of city, the highways would constrict like a Python, trapping people and their cars, Young said.
Young also worries what would happen if California is left in shambles after a major earthquake – the big one nobody ever believed would happen. Where would the evacuees – potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions – flee? Most likely, Nevada.
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“I really hadn’t thought about it until now,” said Young, who’s studying for his master’s in emergency management. “They’d totally overrun this state. I think we’re going to have to factor in a few more things.”
Katrina exposed other logistical holes. The Nevada National Guard is stretched thin because of the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nevada Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Cindy Kirkland said about 800 guardsmen have been deployed along with the state’s six huge Chinook helicopters. The Chinooks and handful of Blackhawk helicopters, which returned in June from operations abroad, would be vital in relief efforts.
So would the state’s huge C-130 transport planes that were almost lost in the most recent round of military base closings.
“We need to review the plans and make sure they’re adequate,” Kirkland said.
In some ways, Young said Southern Nevada is better prepared than New Orleans. For instance, he said he would not have sent people to the Superdome to languish without enough food or water in unbearable conditions.
Las Vegas has outfitted its 2 million-square-foot convention center with supplies if thousands needed to be housed in an emergency.
“We’ve stepped it up since 9/11,” Young said.
State Homeland Security Administrator Giles Vanderhoof said Katrina held another important lesson. Tabletop scenarios and studies will not take the place of action. Nevada has made a point of conducting live exercises.
“Any plan you do and leave on the shelf is a bad plan,” he said. “They have to be reviewed, updated and exercised. You need to put money into planning and exercises, not just equipment.”
Earlier this year, a total of 78 local, state and federal agencies took part in a massive exercise that involved simulated terror attacks on the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Las Vegas Strip. Among the several scenarios played out, hundreds of dead bodies exposed to a deadly chemical agent had to be decontaminated.
For the area, a fictional doomsday had arrived.
“We threw the kitchen sink at Southern Nevada,” Clark County Emergency Manager Jim O’Brien said. “The rational was to test us beyond the breaking point. That was our Katrina.”
Called “Rotunda Thunda,” it followed on the heels of another major exercise in 2003 in Nevada named “Determined Promise.”
Biloxi, Miss., resident Michael Slotterback arrived in Las Vegas on Monday after packing up his car and heading west with his fianceé and two small children. Slotterback, a 22-year-old who works in construction, said he was more concerned about a natural disaster than a terrorist attack.
“Every summer you have to worry about running away,” said Slotterback, referring to the Gulf Coast’s annual hurricane season.
Kirkland said Nevada still had to make sure it didn’t fall into the same deadly morass as New Orleans. Sometimes, she said, that starts on the most basic level.
“The unity of command is absolutely critical,” she said. “It creates confusion. You have to have one chain of command.”
At the Homeland Security Commission’s meeting Tuesday – the first in Nevada since Katrina hit New Orleans – Kirkland, Young, Vanderhoof and others had the Big Easy on their minds.
If something of the magnitude of Katrina leveled Las Vegas, these men and women would have to answer the questions about why the state was or wasn’t ready.
“This is the situation we are trying to prepare for,” Chairman Dale Carrison told the commission.