Communications students at Brigham Young University (BYU) were assigned to test the public disclosure laws as practiced by Utah’s 29 county governments. They decided to use as their test, county emergency evacuation plans, critically important in the wake of terrorist attacks on the U.S. in the past 15 years, and especially critical after the disasters in evacuation failures during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
Many Utah counties contacted by the BYU students outright refused public access to any information about their plans, while a good number of them said the plan was being revised and not available because it had not been officially adopted.
[Joel] Campbell [assistant professor in the department of communications,] said there were a few counties that at least tried to balance the public’s interest with security concerns by providing some information.
“In today’s world of threats of violence and terrorism, a county official charged with law enforcement responsibilities, as some who were contacted, could and probably should be suspicious about releasing such information,” said Brent Gardner, executive director for the Utah Association of Counties.
One might think that emergency evacuation plans would be spread as far and wide as possible, so that citizens could have at their fingertips the information they need to save their lives.
Not in Utah. The students found that the plans to evacuate the public, were secret, and unavailable even under Freedom of Information Act and state law requests.
Utah is not likely to be hit by a hurricane. Tornadoes are rare. Flash floods are common, especially in desert areas, however, and flooding could require serious evacuation. The Wasatch Front, Utah’s most populated area, stretches exactly the length of the massive Wasatch Fault, too. Utahns often talk about the “Big One” in earthquakes, unknown in current human history, but possible and perhaps probable, according to geologists.
If such a disaster strikes, knocking out much of Utah’s communication infrastructure, perhaps making canyon evacuation routes unpassable, and causing widespread injury and other suffering, will Utah citizens be comforted knowing that their county governments have emergency plans in place, safely secreted away from the public they are ostensibly designed to protect?
A map generated at the US Geological Survey (USGS) site (you can generate one for your Zipcode) covering the area including BYU and Salt Lake City, north to the the Utah borders with Idaho and Wyoming, show as high as 50% probability of a Richter Scale magnitude 5 earthquake within the next 25 years.
Click for larger view.
The information that an earthquake is likely, is public. Information that would protect the lives of citizens in such an event, is secret. Panic is okay, knowing what to do is covered up.
A cynic might see something wrong with that picture.