Forty years later, the prospect of a TMI-related evacuation remains daunting

The last several decades have brought more detailed plans and better technology, but the people responsible for TMI disaster prep say there will always be unknowns.

  • Katie Meyer/WITF

Photo courtesy of the the Historical Society of Dauphin County

In March 1979, Middletown Borough was home to approximately 11,000 residents. It was estimated at that time that 20 percent of the population packed up and temporarily left the area due to the uncertainty of what might transpire at Three Mile Island.

(Middletown) — If there is ever another accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, Dr. Stacey Sidle knows exactly what she’ll do with the 3,869 children in her care.

Sidle, who is superintendent of York County’s Northeastern School District, will have to work with teachers and administrators to pack those thousands of kids into buses and bring them to a district outside TMI’s 10-mile evacuation radius.

All eight of Northeastern’s schools are inside it.

You can practice it in the best-case scenario, but what we know is people will be scared,” Sidle said. “We’ll have parents coming here, like, give me my kids.”

Her job, she said, “is to get our kids out safely and quickly.”

Thirteen districts have schools within 10 miles of TMI, and they all have plans like Northeastern’s.

But that wasn’t always the case. Just ask Eric Fasick.

In March 1979, Fasick was 7 years old and attending first grade at Herman Avenue Elementary School in Lemoyne.

He vividly remembers the day his teachers abruptly told him and his classmates to leave.

The teachers came into the room and there was this mass confusion of sorts,” he recalled. “Everybody was sort of frustrated. Kids were asking questions. And the teachers blatantly just said, ‘Get your things, go home.’”

Fasick lived four blocks away. He walked home, and then went back outside to play.

Katie Meyer / WITF

Fasick stands in front of posters collected in the wake of TMI’s partial meltdown, displayed at the Dauphin County Historical Society.

Today, Fasick is the president of the Dauphin County Historical Society, which has an exhibit on the accident.

He also recently published a book about TMI. He said during his research process, he realized his experience wasn’t at all unique.

“There was absolutely no fore-planning,” he said. “It caught everybody sort of with their pants down.”

If you look at the timeline of Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown, you can see why Fasick’s teachers got worked up.

The initial accident happened early on a Wednesday morning. As state and federal agencies tried to figure out how bad things were, information started trickling out to the public.

Many people didn’t wait for an evacuation order.

Some families started packing up and leaving that day. And come Friday, they had an even bigger reason to go: Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who had been receiving conflicting information all morning about the problem getting worse, got on TV.

“In the interest of taking every precaution,” he said, “I am advising those who may be particularly susceptible to the effects of any radiation—that is, pregnant women and preschool-aged children—to leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further notice.”

Mass care centers were set up for evacuees.

One of them was in Hershey, and Dr. Joseph Trautlein remembers it well.

In 1979, Trautlein was a 38-year-old physician at the University Hospital of Penn State at Hershey. He had done a stint in the Air Force and was on the hospital’s disaster response team, and he was instructed to be the medical director at the evacuation center.

He said he walked into the Hershey Park Arena with his white coat on and very little idea of what to do.

The arena, which had hosted a hockey game the night before, had its ice covered with particle board, and makeshift partitions were set up with cots inside.

Trautlein estimates the people who passed through the center over the next several days numbered in the thousands. But aside from talking to news crews, he didn’t have to do much.

Back in the area hospitals, though, there was a conundrum.

All the patients well enough to evacuate had done so. But to get everyone else out, they would have needed about 400 ambulances.

They had 15.

So, they improvised with some tractor trailers.

“Basically, we were going to take the trucks and a nurse with a flashlight in the back, and each patient would have three days’ worth of medication, and then the trucks would head off north and east and south and west, wherever there was a hospital that might be able to handle them,” Trautlein said. “That was the extent of the plan.”

That didn’t end up being necessary. But Trautlein said the whole mess convinced everyone they needed to develop an actual strategy.

Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Dauphin County

Mary Lee Shaffer (left) and Sally Ann Shaffer pack up the car outside of their residence on Oak Hill Drive in Middletown.

These days, Randy Padfield is the acting director of Pennsylvania’s Emergency Management Agency.

In 1979, there were around 135,000 people living within 10 miles of the plant. Now it’s more like 230,000.

But Padfield said there is also more data on how a radiation release would spread, and which areas would be affected. That might allow a more conservative evacuation.

“There would not necessarily be the need to be able to do the entire radius around the plant, potentially, and we could very easily do targeted evacuations of that down-wind plume,” he said.

If a big evacuation were necessary, Padfield said it would be slow. There would be traffic control points where roads typically get backed up, and PEMA would be able to send alerts and directions right to people’s mobile phones.

Of course, he noted, technology sometimes creates new problems.

“There’s going to be a lot of misinformation that’s put out there on social media,” he said. “The key is, we actually monitor social media and we’ll try to correct any misinformation that’s out there.”

Basically, he said, it’s important to stay flexible. Even the best strategies can go awry.

Sidle, the Northeastern superintendent, can relate to that.

She said she’s not always thinking about what would happen if there was another problem at TMI. But the idea does lurk in the back of her mind.

“There are things you can’t dwell on,” she said. “Having this level of responsibility—I often say to people, I know I have it but if I dwell on it for too long it becomes overwhelming.”

That’s why, she said, it’s comforting to have a plan.

The district is due for its next evacuation drill in about a month.

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