New evacuation plan in works for Hampton Roads

Dave Ress
Contact Reporterdress@dailypress.com

Virginia will have a new plan for evacuating Hampton Roads if a hurricane or other disaster hits, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said, after speaking to a statewide emergency management symposium.

The current plan calls for reversing lanes on Interstate 64 and using the entire highway. The new plan will be published later this spring and is to take effect in June, he said.

It will be a regional plan, requiring coordination among Hampton Roads cities, which have had separate evacuation plans to comply with federal directives after Hurricane Katrina.

McAuliffe offered few details, except to say it would not rely on lane reversals on the interstate.

"That's the craziest thing I ever heard of," he said, of the current reliance on I-64. "How long would it take to do all that?"

The new regional plan is a product of a stepped-up effort to better coordinate response to emergencies, sparked in part by a 2014 exercise in which top state officials simulated response to a hurricane, he said.

"That meeting was a disaster," McAuliffe said. "Everyone was looking around asking who's responsible and nobody knew."

Fixing that was a top priority of newly-named state coordinator of emergency management Jeffrey D. Stern, whose first week on the job included that exercise.

One result, McAuliffe said, was that when Hurricane Matthew hit last year and Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms asked for help, there were Virginia National Guard soldiers on the ground within minutes.

"He said he'd never seen anything like that," McAuliffe said.

The hurricane caused more than $50 million in damage to more than 2,100 homes in Virginia Beach. Although the Peninsula saw much less rain, roughly 30 homes, 18 apartment buildings, two mobile homes, a church and a duplex in Hampton suffered damage from the storm. City Line Apartments in Newport News was evacuated because of flooding.

McAuliffe said Virginia's beefed-up emergency management efforts are one of his key talking points when he is wooing businesses to Virginia.

"We've got the infrastructure ... if disaster strikes, we know how to handle that disaster better than any other state," he said.

But McAuliffe said he is deeply concerned about the cuts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the elimination of funds for the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort proposed in President Donald Trump's recent budget blueprint, particularly given Hampton Roads' vulnerability to flooding because of sea level rise. FEMA would see a $667 million cut under the president's budget proposal.

Brian Moran, the state's public safety secretary, said other homeland security spending shifts could also hurt.

In addition to the FEMA cut, McAuliffe is concerned about funding for the Urban Area Secure Initiatives program.

The program's current formula for evaluating grants hurts Hampton Roads because it treats the presence of military bases as a negative, Moran said.

"I guess the idea is that the military is already there to protect you, but we know military installations are targets for terrorists," he said.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.

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