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Weak spots in state’s disaster plans revealed

A chlorine gas accident in Las Vegas could kill up to 91,000 people, the most deadly of all natural or man-made disasters foreseeable in Nevada, according to a confidential report obtained by the Review-Journal.

A major earthquake in Clark County would cause the most economic damage, an estimated $8.7 billion, the report said.

The report concluded that Nevada faces significant challenges in preparing for and coping with these and other catastrophic events. These findings are contained in the first ever comprehensive vulnerability assessment of threats to the state. Former Gov. Kenny Guinn issued an executive order making it confidential.

The vulnerability assessment identified several weaknesses in Clark County’s current level of disaster preparedness, including medical surge capacity at state hospitals and citizen readiness. The study was prepared a year ago by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Institute for Security Studies.

UNLV President David Ashley said Friday the institute, now reorganized, is poised to help the region improve its awareness of pressing security issues.

“We weren’t really realizing our potential, and our potential is very significant,” Ashley said at an on-campus forum of security leaders. “We can create a linkage between the university and the community and the security community.”

The 4-year-old security institute was criticized in two audits last year for poor management of personnel and funds.

UNLV officials felt the institute’s struggles were impeding the university’s goal of gaining a national reputation for homeland security studies. In response to the problems, the university changed the institute’s leadership and structure.

The institute now is led by a retired Army major general and is under the immediate supervision of the university. Previously, the UNLV Research Foundation, a private entity with its own board of directors, had oversight authority.

A panel discussion of security experts organized by the institute at UNLV on Friday unofficially kicked off the institute’s new beginning.

Topics at the forum, which drew a crowd of about 50, included the threat of terrorism, the shootings earlier this month at Virginia Tech University, and the avian flu.

More than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism remains a hot issue in Las Vegas.

“The hospitality industry is the quintessential soft target,” Las Vegas police Lt. Tom Monahan said at Friday’s forum. “We have 18 of the softest targets in the world,” he said, referring to Strip hotels.

The Department of Homeland Security recently restored Southern Nevada to a list of areas in the United States deemed at highest risk of a terrorist attack.

But Robert Riegle, an intelligence officer with the Homeland Security Department, said at Friday’s forum that his agency “hasn’t seen a lot of threats pointed toward Las Vegas.”

The threat report assessed the state’s vulnerability to the types of natural and man-made disasters thought most likely to occur here.

Hypothetical terrorist scenarios in the report included coordinated car bombings at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a dirty bomb attack on the Strip, and a suicide bombing at a hotel in Reno.

Other scenarios included a chlorine gas accident in Las Vegas and earthquakes in different parts of the state.

Among the report’s conclusions:

• A chlorine gas accident in Las Vegas would result in the highest number of fatalities, somewhere between 74,000 and 91,000 under worst-case conditions. The presumed worst-case would be the spill of 34,500 gallons of chlorine — the amount contained in a railroad tanker car — near the Union Pacific overpass on Charleston Boulevard.

• Of the most likely man-made or natural disasters, a 6.5-magnitude earthquake in Clark County would cause the greatest costs in property damage and the economic toll of treating and compensating the injured, an estimated $8.7 billion. Nevada is one of the most earthquake-prone states in the nation.

• The two Clark County facilities that received the highest score for “overall criticality” to the area are both hubs of communications, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s central dispatch center and Switch Communications Group, a company that plays a key role in Internet traffic and commerce. Numerous sites in Reno and North Las Vegas also received this score.

• Clark County has several targets of high symbolic value, including casino hotels, and the local FBI and federal buildings. The hotels, in addition, provide easy access, many potential victims and a chance to disable the state’s economy.

• Officials at Hoover Dam showed little interest in taking part in the vulnerability study. According to the report, the dam’s security director “made it very clear he was sick of people coming to look at the facility and had no intention of complying with our wish for assistance.” The assessment team was still able to conclude the dam is well-protected.

The vulnerability assessment was intended to help the state choose how to allocate anti-terrorism funding. The Las Vegas area’s rating by the Homeland Security Department as a high-risk target makes the region eligible for millions of dollars in anti-terrorism funding this year.

Last summer, the Nevada Homeland Security Commission voted to spend $6.5 million in federal funding to improve information sharing about terrorist threats.

These “terrorism early warning groups” received the largest chunk of the $20.5 million allocated to the state last year for homeland security.

The commission put more than $6 million toward creating a communications system that would allow every emergency agency in the state to talk with every other one.

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