Americans were rightly angered; first by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and then by the chaotic evacuation of Houston before Hurricane Rita, in which as many as 2.5 million people were stranded on highways that had become parking lots.

Those colossal planning failures should prompt a re-examination of the agency’s assurances about the feasibility of the emergency plan for the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located in Westchester County about 35 miles from Times Square. An investigation is all the more appropriate since the authorities who approved the emergency plan are Joe Allbaugh and Michael Brown, two of the discredited bureaucrats responsible for the agency’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina.

Before 9/11, the agency identified a terrorist attack on New York and a hurricane in New Orleans as two of the most likely disasters that could befall our nation. Any credible list of possible terrorist targets in New York would include Indian Point, which, as the 9/11 Commission Report revealed, may have been on the original hit list for the 2001 attacks. Moreover, casual observation of the power plant, buttressed by various government and company reports, reveals that Indian Point is virtually undefended against an attack by water or air.

Indian Point’s license requires its owners to demonstrate that there is a workable evacuation plan in place. In an exhaustive, 270-page report on Indian Point’s emergency preparedness, James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director, criticized virtually every aspect of the plan and concluded that Indian Point’s disaster response system is not adequate to protect the public from radiation releases.

Witt said that Indian Point’s emergency plan does “not consider the possible ramifications of a terrorist-caused event.” He emphasized that an evacuation in the event of an attack would be impossible given the area’s congested roads, population density and the near certainty that New Yorkers far outside the 10-mile evacuation zone would try to flee, thus confounding the evacuation of people closer to the plant. It doesn’t take an expert to know that few of the 20 million people living within a 50-mile radius of the plant would just wait around for officials to tell them whether or not they and their families could be exposed to radiation.

With the exception of FEMA, nearly everyone who has investigated Indian Point’s emergency evacuation plan has concluded that it would not work. This includes most of the government officials and more than 200 first responders – police officers, firefighters,
bus drivers, schoolteachers and hospital workers – charged with executing the plan. Three of the four county governments (Orange, Rockland and Westchester) and the State of New York have refused to certify the plan as adequate to protect public health and safety.
More than 400 politicians – including 11 members of Congress – and 500 local businesses have called for the plant’s closing, citing, among other things, Indian Point’s patently unworkable emergency plan.

Yet in 2003, despite overwhelming evidence that the plan was fatally flawed, Allbaugh and Brown approved it, prompting Sue Kelly, a Republican congresswoman from Westchester, to accuse the agency of ‘bureaucratic rubber stamping in its most
grotesque and dangerous form.”

Last year, in response to an outcry from the public and politicians, FEMA promised to improve its biennial drill assessing emergency preparedness by subjecting Indian Point to a mock terrorist attack. But the agency, by assuming that the attack simulated in the mock scenario would not result in a release of radiation, might as well have been testing emergency preparedness at a local shopping mall.

In a Sept. 2002 drill, in which the hapless plan passed with practically flying colors, one of the agency’s few suggestions for improvement was to deploy more toll booth operators on Interstate 87 to handle increased traffic.

It seems that, in approving Indian Point’s plans for evacuation, Brown placed the same kind of bet that caused the fiasco in New Orleans – in this case, that Indian Point will not suffer an accident or terrorist attack on this administration’s watch.

Now that Allbaugh and Brown are gone, New York’s leaders from both political parties should demand a rescinding of Indian Point’s emergency plan approval and an independent investigation into FEMA’s unsubstantiated decision to certify what the rest of us know is a bad, potentially disastrous, joke.

Alex Matthiessen is the executive director of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.