HUNTINGTON — Cabell County emergency officials will have their hands full today as they participate in an international, mass evacuation drill.
The scenario involves motorists evacuating Washington, D.C., in an emergency, in numbers that would overwhelm West Virginia’s infrastructure and many amenities, such as gasoline stations, restaurants and motels.
Today’s mission is to transform a vacant piece of land in KineticPark along Interstate 64 into a massive comfort station with tents, water and portable fuel. Emergency officials will be timing themselves to gauge the time it takes to call in requests, transport the items and install them for service at the station.
Organizers hope to have Cabell County’s station fully operational within six to eight hours — the estimated drive time from Washington under normal circumstances.
The drill should have little effect on traffic or businesses in the area as it will not involve victims or massive amounts of traffic. Instead, it will involve telephone calls and deliveries as officials measure everything in real time.
“The majority of people won’t even know it’s going on,” said Gordon Merry, director of emergency services for Cabell County.
Merry said the on-site activities could involve as many as 50 people. Everything will occur on the lower level of KineticPark, next to the Bob Evans restaurant.
The drill is sponsored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which refers to the exercise as the “2008 Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration.” The mission will be aimed at gauging communication abilities between governments — domestic and international. Some Canadian officials will participate, said Secretary James Spears of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The state’s participation in the drill will last into Wednesday, but Cabell County’s involvement will conclude in one day. Spears said similar comfort stations will be set up in Kanawha and Berkeley counties.
West Virginia has been pushing federal officials to develop an urban-to-rural evacuation plan. Spears said he believes the plan must garner attention to help rural states, such as West Virginia, cope with a mass influx of evacuees. He said the Mountain State’s infrastructure would not allow it to accept millions of new residents.
“We can’t overlook our need to take care of them on their way,” he said, explaining the state serves an important role accommodating those headed west.
Statewide resources, including some workers from the Division of Highways, will participate. Those workers will place signs along different roadways. Those signs would communicate the evacuation route and other details.
No signs will be posted in Cabell County today. Crews will participate by responding to certain areas, but no signs will be placed because of ongoing construction at the Hal Greer Boulevard/KineticPark exit from I-64.
Typical emergency agencies will participate, along with several others. Those groups include ham radio operators and the Civil Air Patrol. The pilots will provide an aerial view of traffic, according to Jerry Beckett, a regional emergency preparedness official.
Beckett said local Head Start officials expressed interest in participating. They wanted to provide baby formula, car seats and diapers. Officials also looked at getting an ATM on site.
“We want to run the gamut of folks we’re involving,” he said.
Officials hope the drill exposes deficiencies in their plan so that problems can be fixed before a catastrophic event occurs. Such issues would include the discovery of outdated telephone books in the local emergency operations center. Merry said officials noticed the issue in preparing for the drill.