This Reformer file photo shows RACES workers manning the radios during a training at the Dummerston Town Garage. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
This Reformer file photo shows RACES workers manning the radios during a training at the Dummerston Town Garage. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Tuesday October 16, 2012

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of stories dealing with emergency preparedness in the10-mile evacuation zone around Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont and New Hampshire chapter of the American Red Cross is requesting more than $700,000 in funding for its role in Vermont's Radiological Emergency Response Plan (RERP).

"At present, there is a significant gap between what the plan calls for and what the Red Cross can reasonably provide in the way of material equipment and staffing," said Larry Crist, regional executive of the chapter, during a meeting of the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel in Vernon on Sept. 10.

The funds would be used to cover the cost of planning, equipment, training and other necessary items to supplement the Red Cross' capability to provide for the 6,000 people the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates would need shelter in case of an emergency at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

But if history is any guide, the amount awarded will be far less than the amount requested.

Last year, the Red Cross requested $92,000, but only received $725. In 2011, said Crist, the Red Cross requested $39,120, was told to resubmit a request for $6,161 and then received nothing. In 2010, it requested $392,695 but only received $9,200, with the money targeted for a statewide digital radio upgrade, which was not part of the Red Cross' request, said Crist.

And now, for fiscal year 2013, the Red Cross is asking for $727,684, which Crist said is "the cost of doing business." The funds come from Entergy, which owns and operates Yankee, after Vermont Emergency Management reviews requests from the towns in the 10-mile Emergency Preparedness Zone around the plant and organizations such as the Red Cross.

To date, said Crist, response plan fund utilization has primarily focused on the development of local plans, evacuation, decontamination, environmental surveillance and the operation of the Bellows Falls Union High School Reception Center.

"Current funding priorities do not adequately address the RERP's largest component with the longest duration -- sheltering and feeding," Crist told the Reformer.

"Evacuation will be completed in hours, whereas the duration of sheltering will be days/weeks/months," states a flyer handed out at the VSNAP meeting. "The RERP envisions a level of sheltering far beyond any other state plan formulated to respond to disaster and far outstrips the private resources of the Red Cross."

"It's been 40 years and we still haven't gotten this right," said Crist. But, he added, with the right amount of funding, "This stuff can all be fixed."

About two years ago, Crist left the Vermont Department of Health, where he was the director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and EMS.

"I took a job with the Red Cross, which had agreed to do things with the RERP that it can't do," said Crist.

One of his first tasks as regional executive was to conduct an analysis of what the Red Cross could and couldn't do, which was completed in November 2011.

"There was nothing new, but nobody had connected the dots," said Crist.

The question that had always been asked was "How much is available and what can we do with it?" he said, while it should have been "This is what we need to do and this is how much money we need to do it."

Currently, Red Cross resources can accommodate only 3,000 evacuees, according to documentation supporting its $700,000 fund request.

Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon (Entergy Corp.)
Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon (Entergy Corp.)

"Accommodating this additional population (another 3,000 people) calls for an intensive two-year planning and implementation process; as well as on-going sustainment thereafter, that cannot be accomplished by current ARC personnel," state the funding request documents.

While the request includes items such as a planning and coordination deputy ($59,000) and assistant ($54,000), as well as a volunteer coordinator ($54,000), a large portion of the money is needed to provide for materials such as regular cots, at $129,000, medical cots, at $54,000, and four vehicles, at $100,000. The Red Cross also needs $47,520 for the blankets that will go along with the additional cots and $3,840 for walkers.

But that's not all.

To update the Red Cross' capability to respond to an emergency will require two full-time staffers for two years, according to the supporting documentation. It will also require full-time assistants for on-going coordination and preparation activities.

"RERP cannot be established in a vacuum and then left idle; someone has to pay attention to it and it makes sense to integrate it into the equally large ARC shelter sustainment program," stated the document. "Absent this ‘integrated' approach, the current guidelines ... would necessitate a far more costly and far less effective and efficient duplication of systems with the ARC."

A volunteer coordinator is needed due to the number of volunteers that will be needed to staff the 16 shelters, said Crist. The effort will require 720 volunteers to staff the shelters 24 hours a day. However, he said, "The average volunteer recall rate is 30 to 35 percent. There is no way at this time we can train 2,000 volunteers."

According to the supporting document, "The current ARC Volunteer Program is not currently staffed to the degree necessary to incorporate this significant increase in volunteers."

However, given the appropriate amount of funding, the Red Cross can undertake the training and maintenance of 2,000 volunteers, stated the document. The cost of training those who will train the 2,000 volunteers is estimated at $25,000.

Four vehicles will be needed to allow the additional staff to travel for: Site evaluation, selection and negotiation; community acceptance negotiation; siting equipment and supplies; establishing training systems; and any routine meetings as required by the planning process.

"It is unrealistic to believe that the RERP-related shelter and mass care requirements can be fulfilled absent significant travel on the part of the personnel charged with carrying out those provisions," stated the document.

This latest fund request from the Red Cross isn't the first time Crist has pointed out what he believes to be the inadequacy of the response plan.

In November of 2001, Gov. Howard Dean ousted Crist, who was then the chairman of the state's terrorism task force, after Crist and then-Emergency Management Director Ed Von Turkovich sent a secret request for funds for the RERP to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office. This was after an analysis conducted by then-State Auditor Elizabeth Ready concluded the fund was "grossly inadequate" and Vermont Emergency Management's oversight of the fund was "a mess."

Von Turkovich later apologized for acting without the governor's permission, and Dean said the task force rearrangement was unrelated to the letter.

Kate O'Connor, who was then special assistant to Dean, suggested the memo showed weaknesses in Vermont's ability to respond to a terrorist attack.

"We're concerned with telling the wrong people what we have and don't have," she said.

In Wednesday's Reformer, Vermont Emergency Management Director Joe Flynn explains how the state evaluates and approves fund requests.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.