Among the faults a recent study found with the Indian Point evacuation plans is that drills prove little because no one is actually required to leave the area. While the plant and emergency personnel conduct their test, average citizens go about their day as if nothing is happening. That’s because, for them, nothing is.
That’s been a talking point for Rockland critics of the evacuation plan, who believe a real test would prove it impossible to evacuate a 10-mile radius — including a large segment of Rockland — should there ever be a serious nuclear emergency at the power plants. But over a little more than a decade, we’ve had some small-scale tests of our own in Rockland. They had nothing to do with Indian Point, but they were very real emergencies or potential emergencies. They demanded immediate action and the response had immediate results.
The biggest test came following a bomb threat against the Palisades Center mall called in to Clarkstown police in November 2000.
Police took the 3:06 p.m. call seriously enough to prompt a mass evacuation starting at 3:25 p.m. Officials said at the time they were low-key, hoping to prevent a panic, which they did.
About 12,000 people poured out of the stores and into their cars, jamming the parking lots and the ring road around the mall. People stood in the cold outside their cars as they watched a sea of brake lights form.
Valet-parking attendants handed shoppers their keys, pointing them toward the lot where their cars were. People who didn’t emerge where they had entered the mall had to circle the building to reach their cars.
Others who didn’t have cars of their own, including many teens, scrambled to call parents or get other rides away from the area.
The building emptied in about 15 minutes, but it took some drivers more than 90 minutes to get from parking spaces, through lots, around the ring road to exits and onto the area’s major roadways.
Other incidents, too, have crippled our major roads. We’ve seen truck or bus crashes on the Tappan Zee Bridge create gridlock north and west to Orange County and New Jersey and east to Connecticut.
We’ve seen that kind of impact, or close to it, several times when gasoline or propane trucks have crashed or spilled their contents in western Ramapo.
Take your pick.
In 1991, a gasoline tank truck flipped over in Hillburn, closing Route 17 for about eight hours. Although it happened about 2:30 p.m., highways in the county were snarled through the evening rush. Traffic forced off Route 17 in New Jersey poured north on Franklin Turnpike onto Suffern’s Orange Avenue, where it met westbound traffic on Lafayette Avenue to gridlock the village and an area east to Airmont Road and beyond.
There was the same kind of traffic impact in January 1995, when a propane truck overturned and slid down an embankment from a ramp between the New York State Thruway and Interstate 287 in Suffern, a situation emergency officials said had the potential to blow up a third of the village.
In cases where an evacuation was necessary, the area has always been small. Traffic jams have been more the result of people just trying to get home from work.
North Rockland Schools Superintendent Dodge Watkins has spoken several times about his district’s experiences in the aftermath of a boiler explosion at the Lovett Generation Station in Stony Point in May 2001. Buses that were to evacuate students to Rockland Community College, as would happen in the case of an Indian Point emergency, couldn’t reach Stony Point Elementary School. The roads around it were clogged with parents heading there to pick up their children.
Four months later, on the morning of Sept. 11, parents all across Rockland headed to local schools to reach their children.
And officials who hope to pull off a school evacuation quietly before letting the general public know of a problem at Indian Point got more evidence last week of just how difficult that would be.
When several Rockland schools went into lockdown because of a threat of a Columbine-style attack, students used cell phones to alert their parents, some of whom called school offices, where staff didn’t know the reason for the move.
In these and other incidents, our emergency response has been admirable and the lessons learned have resulted in changes in emergency plans, improvements to facilities and better training. But we’ve never had that kind of true test of the Indian Point plan. And most of us hope we never do. “