Learning Katrina's lessons: Hurricanes spur more thinking about disaster response

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Cape Girardeau firefighter Michael Allen, left, prepared to rappel from the top of a Southeast Missouri Hospital parking garage while he watched a litter containing a mannequin being lowered to the ground during an Aug. 26, 2005, training session. (Don Frazier)

The catastrophe of suffering that followed Hurricane Katrina spurred efforts by local emergency services planners to avoid similar foul-ups.

Agencies responsible for taking the lead in the event of an earthquake, epidemic or other disaster have been busily reviewing their plans and making changes since the August storm.

"Katrina influenced everyone's thinking," said Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center.

Sibbie Hayes, left, of New Orleans, talked about the kindness she received from those volunteering at the Camp McClanahan in Kennett, Mo., as Becky Harding, a Red cross volunteer, listened. (Diane L. Wilson)

The televised images of thousands of people stuck without aid in flooded New Orleans raised awareness again of what could happen if a major earthquake occurred along the New Madrid Fault. Most disasters that could strike Southeast Missouri would be localized, such as a tornado, but a major earthquake could disrupt transportation, energy deliveries and food supplies for days, if not weeks.

Another widespread event gaining attention from planners is the possibility of a avian flu pandemic. Craig said the health department has been taking inventory of the number of beds that could be provided in local hospitals and whether a quarantine ordinance is appropriate.

Katrina raised the profile of a popular area program, Community Early Response Training, or CERT, Craig said. CERT prepares people to help their neighbors when a disaster strikes.

"The best gift the community can give itself is for individuals and residents to be better prepared, because the better prepared our citizens are the better outcome of any disaster," she said.

U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, wants the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct a regionwide earthquake drill sometime this year. But at one of the first planning sessions for the drill, she was shaken by news that few, if any agencies, have taken a hard look at the critical assets that must be protected to deal with a major quake successfully.

Cape Girardeau County emergency operations director David Hitt said his office has been worried about the same problem. After consultation with other emergency planners, the county conducted a survey of special needs that residents would have in the case of disaster. The survey was sent with the yearly assessments from the tax assessor's office.

The 32,000 surveys asked what extra problems the residents may confront in a disaster, Hitt said. The idea was to identify, for example, wheelchair users, people on dialysis, people who can't see or hear and those using oxygen.

"This is one effort we are trying to do to have a better handle on where special-needs folks live," Hitt said.

The database could be combined with the 911 system so emergency workers would know what to expect when responding to a call, Hitt said.

Other inventories underway include:

* Which contractors or other private businesses have equipment such as bulldozers, front-end loaders or generators that could be pressed into service.

* Which gas stations -- if any -- have generators that would allow the public to access fuel supplies in a disaster.

* Where emergency medical service stations could be established if Southeast Missouri Hospital or Saint Francis Medical Center were knocked out of commission.

The need to rethink plans has every agency working, said Mark Hashheider, assistant Cape Girardeau fire chief. "We always continue to do a risk analysis of our community," he said. "We look at our infrastructure and non-city-owned facilities to have a better understanding of our vulnerability."

When a disaster strikes, the county, the city of Jackson and Cape Girardeau have separate emergency operations centers. That seeming duplication can be helpful, however, as when a tornado struck Jackson in 2003.

The Jackson emergency operations center was struck, so responders moved to the county center, said Jackson fire chief Brad Golden.

Command and control in a disaster proved difficult in the Gulf states hit by Katrina. That's why a lot of area leaders, both elected and appointed, are attending training in the National Incident Management System, Golden said.

That way, he said, nobody will be digging through manuals to find the protocols for getting help from the state and federal governments when lives are at stake.

The emphasis on what could happen in an earthquake is a welcome change from the period of complacency that ended when Katrina struck, Hitt said.

Many in the area became acutely aware of the threat of an earthquake in 1990, when Iben Browning predicted the possibility of a major quake that didn't happen. For several years, state and local agencies made preparations for an earthquake a priority.

Since the Dec. 1 meeting Emerson organized on the Southeast Missouri State University campus, Hitt said, communications have become easier with federal and state agencies.

"Jo Ann Emerson asked some tough questions of individuals that has caused them to start thinking," Hitt said. "We had always been told that so-and-so has a plan. But we didn't know what so-and-so's plan was, what they can expect from us and what we can expect from them."

The effort to raise awareness of the danger of earthquakes could be criticized as political posturing, but Hitt said that isn't relevant. "If it was political, it was great because we are getting some information we didn't have before."

Still, Hitt said, the most important step anyone can take for preparation is to make plans to rely upon themselves in an emergency. Previously, he said, many advisers said people need to be ready to be on their own for 72 hours.

Katrina showed that the time period could be longer, maybe five or six days, he said. That means being prepared with water, food and other essentials, and taking care of hygiene, he said.

If water supplies are disrupted, Hitt noted, sewers will be useless. "You will have to deal with the fact that you can't use toilets," he said. "You are going to have to be digging trenches."

Katrina also taught planners to remind people to be prepared to take care of their animals, Craig said. Keep enough food and water on hand for pets, she said.

"You have got to plan for your animals," she said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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