Hurricanes recently prompted the evacuations -- sometimes with much chaos -- of New Orleans, Houston and other communities in the Gulf states.
Could it happen here?
A hurricane probably not. But evacuation, yes.
Think of a monster snowstorm. Or a hazardous spill in Buffalo's rail yards. Just last week, a railroad car that regularly carries nuclear materials overturned here. Fortunately, it was empty.
But what would happen if it were not? Is there an evacuation plan in place? Is the community prepared? Where would people go?
In fact, a regional team of emergency responders meets regularly to go over those questions. Their plans try to address potential dangers and conform to guidelines developed by the federal National Incident Management System.
"I'll put not only Buffalo but Erie County and Western New York's emergency plans against any other state in this country, and I've been in this business for 30 years," said Roger Lander, Buffalo's director of the state Office of Homeland Security.
The response to a toxic chemical spill at the CSX rail yard in East Buffalo, for instance, would begin with a call to 911, activating a network of emergency responders, including the Buffalo Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit.
The chemical plume would be tracked by the National Weather Service at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and a mapping program would allow planners to quickly see what schools, nursing homes or critical infrastructure were in its path.
The commander in charge of making decisions would be the Buffalo fire chief and, if deemed a public health emergency, county Health Commissioner Dr. Louis Billitier IV.
If it were a terrorist attack, the FBI would be in charge.
The state would be asked to provide assistance if deemed necessary, and the state could in turn request federal help.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra or Mayor Anthony M. Masiello could issue a state of emergency if an evacuation were needed.
NFTA and school buses, rail and wheelchair vans would be used to transport people without cars to other counties through a mutual aid agreement. The Red Cross and an array of relief organizations would be called upon to help provide food and water.
Local shelters could extend from hotel rooms and churches to the armories and HSBC Arena.
Many helping hands
Surrounding communities would also be counted on to chip in, from lending firefighters and police officers to providing shelter and supplies. The most likely scenarios for larger disruptions involve a weather-related event such as a major snowstorm. Other more likely possibilities are ice storms that cause power outages, or localized flooding from spring snow melts.
"We could talk about tornadoes and other weather events, but the chances of them are slim to none. There's some potential out there for earthquake activity, but that's pretty low down on the scale, too," said Homeland Security's Lander.
Steven S. Baum, a Niagara Falls police officer who lectures on emergency readiness, said the city is prepared for a disaster.
"We don't have the shortcomings they do down South, where we live under so much water that we're going to drown. We don't have to be worried about having boats available or the levees breaking.
Lander said he was disturbed, like most people, by the handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
"Command, control and communication went wrong, right back to the basics," Lander said. "Will there be glitches in a major event here? Sure, but not to the level we saw down there."
There have been 30 federally declared disasters, including in Western New York, and 134 activations of the emergency operations center in New York State since 1995, according to the New York State Emergency Management Office.
Dennis Michalski, the agency spokesman, said learning experiences like Hurricane Katrina provide opportunities to revise plans. "Are we going back and tweaking our plans? Sure we are. Plans are not static and shouldn't sit on a shelf," Michalski said.
Michael Walters, commissioner of Erie County's Department of Emergency Services, said Katrina helped raise public awareness of the importance of civic readiness.
"Was it a wake-up call? I hope so. Every time an event like this happens, it moves [emergency response] up to the forefront. It takes major events for not only the public but elected officials to recognize those needs," Walters said.
The Department of Emergency Services' 2005 budget is $750,000 -- a drop of 32 percent from 2004 when budget cuts forced all county departments to take a hit. The drop-off has been a hardship for administrative work such as accounting and records management, Walters said, but it hasn't weakened the department's ability to respond to an emergency.
The past three years have seen some $30 million in Homeland Security funds flow into the area for special projects, Walters said. The money -- split between Buffalo, and Erie and Niagara counties -- has been used to improve communication systems, train first responders and pay for sophisticated equipment.
That includes helping to finance improvements to the Erie County Emergency Training and Operations Center in Cheektowaga and the new Public Safety Center in Buffalo, which the Department of Emergency Services is moving into.
The emergency operating centers serve as mutual backup systems in the event one becomes disabled during an emergency, Walters said.
A newly announced $2 billion statewide wireless communications network will be starting in Erie and Chautauqua counties. The public safety radio network is intended to improve emergency response and homeland security efforts by replacing outdated systems with an advanced digital network.
School districts have evacuation plans developed by the county Department of Emergency Services, emergency planners in towns and the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
In West Seneca, for instance, each school has an alternate in the district it regards as a safe haven where children can be transferred if necessary. West Seneca Supervisor James Brotz said bus gas tanks are kept full in case of an emergency, and two-way radio systems are ready to be used for communication.
Brotz said his biggest worry in a disaster would be reaching enough bus drivers. He said he would use the media and phone calls to get the word out. To avoid people staying behind with their pets -- as happened in New Orleans -- the county's Comprehensive Emergency Management includes evacuation and care plans for animals.
Northtowns Bureau reporter Niki Cervantes contributed to this report.