Miamisburg and civil defense

THE derailment this week of a chemical-laden freight train in Miamisburg, Ohio, as well as the recent minor California earthquake, is a reminder of the need for communities to enact comprehensive civil defense plans. In Miamisburg, it was the action of local officials in leading an evacuation of townspeople that reduced the possibility of large numbers of casualties. Disaster drills and overall safety programs are still undertaken in some communities, but, as a new federal report concludes, the notion of ``civil defense'' has fallen on lean times in most of the United States. That is particularly evident regarding planning for possible nuclear conflict.

Part of the reason for the decline in safety preparedness is economic; salting away foodstuffs and designating buildings as emergency sites cost money. Part of the reason for the decline, in the case of nuclear warfare, is practical; in the long run, arms control and a secure defense establishment seem better protection against military assault than designating more basement civil defense shelters.

And surely, the history of this century has amply shown that establishing a firm sense of safety -- in a nuclear age, or any other period of time, for that matter -- must be found on a higher basis than just a government civil defense program, as important as such a program may be.

Still, the report that was just released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency concludes that United States ``civil defense capabilities are low and declining.'' That should give pause to most Americans, the majority of whom live in urban centers that would be particularly susceptible to logistical, food, sanitation, and housing difficulties in event of a major social upheaval, whether caused by earthquake, fire, flood, chemical or nuclear accident, or military conflict.

Throughout history many nations have prudently established procedures to handle disasters. The Old Testament, for example, contains a number of examples.

Washington should carefully review the new civil defense report and then take appropriate action. This should not be done out of fear or emotionalism. It is essentially a practical step for federal, state, and local governments to establish coordinated procedures for responding to potential major public challenges.

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