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Rural plan focuses on urban evacuations

Cattaraugus and Allegany counties are working on a plan to help rural communities cope if a mass emergency evacuation sends hundreds of thousands of urban people fleeing into the country.

The Cattaraugus County Health Department's Melissa Kosinski, who staffs the counties' Advanced Practice Center, is part of the nation's only rural study team of the nine counties now working on how to handle emergency preparedness in the aftermath of a dirty bomb, a bioterrorism attack, a flu pandemic or an industrial or chemical incident.

Kosinski, speaking at a Cattaraugus County Board of Health meeting last week, said that while rural counties could be overwhelmed in such an evacuation, there is little funding to help them accomplish the task.

Only 32 percent of the state Department of Health's annual $1.7 million emergency preparedness funding for Western New York finds its way to the five rural counties of Cattaraugus, Allegany, Chautauqua, Genesee and Wyoming, she said. The other 68 percent is reserved for Erie and Niagara counties' health care, shelter and other preparedness resources.

"We are expected to make the same preparations as the urban counties," Kosinski said, noting the urban-to-rural evacuation has emerged as an area of concern because there is no information to help rural communities deal with a major influx of people. She added that the cross-border issues are also of concern.

She said Cattaraugus County is unique because many urban people have ties in this area and because it is geographically positioned to receive New York City evacuees traveling on I-86, as well as those fleeing south across the border from Canada and from Buffalo, the state's second-largest city.

The study will assess how far urbanites would travel along the evacuation routes and will map traffic destinations and identify roads for travel. A best practices guide will be developed to direct mutual aid efforts and communication to meet the challenge. A public health conference on the subject was held in November, along with a one-hour video training. A second training session will be held in May as part of the effort to provide tools to rural responders and health officials.

The Advance Practice Center is working on the $440,000 study, which is funded by the Western New York Public Health Alliance, being conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and Penn State University. Kosinski said it is hoped the effort will provide guidance for future research and funding to help rural regions cope and plan for large evacuations.

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