Towns readying for new round of nuke pills distribution

A survey of 210 households in six towns this fall showed that a significant percentage of the respondents lack information about potassium iodide pills that protect against radiation that would be released in a severe nuclear power plant accident.

The survey showed that one in seven households had lost track of their supplies of potassium iodide pills, also known as KI, and nearly half reported having an insufficient amount for everyone in their household. Three-quarters said they did not know where to go in their town to get additional KI pills.

This information could be useful as towns make plans to distribute fresh KI pills in the next few months, said Russell Melmed, epidemiologist for Ledge Light Health District, the agency that ran the survey.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to send Connecticut 1.28 million 65-mg KI tablets in the next 60 days, according to Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC. The pills would be sent to the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which then would distribute them to the towns in the 10-mile emergency planning zone around Millstone Power Station in Waterford.

The last KI distribution took place four years ago. That supply is marked with February and April expiration dates, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency in December sent letters to emergency management directors assuring that the pills would remain effective for six months after the expiration date, said Murray Pendleton, chief of police and emergency management director in Waterford.

Sheehan, of the NRC, said the distribution was to take place by the end of 2013 but was delayed because of funding issues and the federal government shutdown last fall.

The door-to-door survey was conducted by teams of volunteers in Ledge Light's Disaster Epidemiology Strike Team, formed to help the region better plan for and deal with emergencies. The teams fanned out on a Saturday afternoon in East Lyme, Groton, Ledyard, New London, Old Lyme and Waterford. It was the first exercise of its kind in Connecticut, following a model being promoted by the Centers for Disease Control that had been used after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and after a 2012 tornado in Kentucky. Data collected during the exercise provided useful information about how towns can help residents better plan for emergencies, and gave volunteer teams a chance to practice skills they would use in a real emergency, Ledge Light officials said.

"One of the findings was that people overall feel pretty prepared for disasters, and that's good," Melmed said. "This exercise simulated what it would be like for these teams to go out into the field after a real disaster" to assess needs in the immediate aftermath. People who agreed to answer survey questions were rewarded with a $5 gift card to a local store and received brochures about emergency preparedness.

The report, Melmed said, has been shared with state emergency management officials and those in all six towns in the Millstone emergency zone.

Lack of shelter space

The survey also showed that about one-quarter of local residents would go to a municipal shelter if told to evacuate during a severe storm or other emergency.

"From our perspective, the most alarming finding from this survey is that after a major event, we wouldn't have enough shelter capacity," Melmed said.

The finding indicates that "emergency management and public health officials need to be prepared to identify, open and staff additional shelters should widespread evacuation orders be issued," the report says.

The six towns have a combined population of about 127,000, meaning that municipal shelters would have to be able to house about 32,000 people if one-quarter of the total population evacuated. According to the surveys, half said they would go to the home of a friend or family member if told to evacuate. One-quarter said they would go to a hotel, and the remainder said they would go to a shelter.

But none of the local directors agreed with the report's conclusion that the region's shelter capacity is inadequate.

"We could meet the demand," said Richard Morris, emergency management director for East Lyme.

The town's middle school, which serves as a regional shelter for several towns, has a 15,000-person capacity, plus room for pets, he said. The high school could handle an additional 3,500 people. Both schools have large-capacity emergency generators. The maximum number of people who stayed at the middle school during and after Superstorm Sandy was 250, he said.

Joe Sastre, emergency management director for Groton, said the Robert E. Fitch Senior High School in Groton can house up to 1,500 people. Additional schools and the senior center also could be used as shelters if needed.

"The most we had during Sandy was 150," he said. "We think we have sufficient shelter."

As for the new KI pills, Pendleton said Waterford and other towns in the 10-mile zone are deciding how they will be distributed. He expects the pills will be made available at town hall, the senior center and other locations around town. To address the issue of people not remembering where they put their KI, the town may advise residents to keep the pills in a specific location.

"We want to make it very easily accessible," he said, "and we may make a recommendation about where they store it."

Both Morris and Sastre said their towns probably will distribute the new KI from the town hall and other municipal buildings.

In New London, Peter Reichard, deputy police chief and emergency management director, said the city is considering keeping its supply for a mass distribution at locations throughout the city immediately after a power plant accident, rather than giving out the pills pre-emptively.

j.benson@theday.com

Survey findings

• Eight percent of households reported needing frequent medical care, including oxygen, dialysis, chemotherapy or transfusions.

• Three percent said they required daily home medical care.

• About 86 percent of households said they were "somewhat" or "well prepared" for emergencies.

• One in seven households said they were either not at all prepared for emergencies or are unsure about their level of preparedness.

• The overwhelming majority of households reported having a first-aid kit and a three-day supply of water (other than tap water), food and prescription medications on hand.

• Less than half of the households reported having an emergency plan. One-third have a generator.

• About 83 percent of respondents said they would heed an evacuation order. Of those who said they wouldn't evacuate, main reasons cited were: concerns about leaving their property; having nowhere to go; and having to leave pets. About a third of those who said they wouldn't evacuate declined to give a reason.

• Of those who said they would evacuate, half said they would stay with family or a friend; one-quarter would go to a hotel; and one-quarter would go to a municipal shelter.

• Half of respondents said they have enough KI for every member of the household. Three-quarters said they did not know where they could obtain additional pills. About 16 percent - one in seven households - said they did not know where their KI pills were located.

• About 54 percent said television was their main source of information during emergencies. Internet was the main source for 14 percent, and radio for 11 percent. In the event of a power failure, 42.5 percent said radio would be their main source of information.

• Nearly 97 percent of households reported having a working smoke detector; 68 percent said they had a working carbon monoxide detector.

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