Since the beginning of 2008, Cape Girardeau County has been hit by six storms that resulted in major federal disaster declarations.
The list includes two major ice storms, a record-setting rain that sent hundreds scurrying from their homes in the middle of the night and a windstorm that flattened trees across a wide portion of the area.
The region has, however, avoided what emergency officials call "The Big One," which means anything from a major earthquake on the New Madrid Fault to a tornado hitting an occupied school building or a fire in a nursing home. A truly big disaster could result in several, perhaps dozens, of deaths, and on Monday local officials presented a plan to be ready to handle that worst-case scenario.
Cape Girardeau County Health Center director Charlotte Craig and Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton sought, and obtained, the support of the Cape Girardeau County Commission for a proposal to spend $102,000 on a mobile morgue that could store up to 70 bodies until family members could identify and claim them.
The proposal now moves to the Regional Homeland Security Oversight Committee, which will decide next month how to spend about $580,000 in federal grant funds. The committee has received about $1.4 million in requests, said Richard Knaup, emergency operations director for Cape Girardeau County and a voting member of the committee that directs homeland security spending for a 13-county region.
The mobile morgue consists of a trailer with generator capable of storing 22 bodies, Clifton said in an interview. It is also equipped with a system using a liquid coolant piped through rubber blankets that can preserve 48 bodies at a location set up as a temporary morgue.
Clifton acknowledged the idea of being ready for 70 deaths in a short period of time sounds morbid.
"Anybody that is in any type of disaster planning spends a lot of time planning for something that never happens, and you buy equipment you hope you will never use," Clifton said. "But if we had an earthquake, a tornado, a fire, a bus wreck or whatever, a nursing home fire, with multiple deaths, it would be a real issue where you keep these bodies until they could be claimed."
No single location in Cape Girardeau County could accommodate more than two bodies for an extended period, Clifton said. At his offices on West End Boulevard, Clifton said, the morgue has room for two bodies. And while funeral homes and hospitals also could store disaster victims, they have limited space.
Local officials hold regular meetings to discuss plans for emergencies, Craig said. At those meetings, a regular subject is how to handle multiple deaths, she said. "It always comes back to and centers around what we will do in an extreme catastrophe where we have many people killed," she said. "How do we house the dead? How do we track them? You have to be able to tell family members later on down the way where someone ended up."
Clifton and Craig needed the support of county commissioners because the county will pay the insurance and maintenance costs of the equipment. The mobile morgue would be available throughout the region in a disaster and could be sent elsewhere in Missouri in case of a disaster outside the region, Clifton said.
Past grants controlled by the committee have been used to buy a "mass care" trailer loaded with cots, bedding supplies and hygiene supplies for 150 people for each county in the region. Cape Girardeau County's trailer was delivered three days before the January ice storm and was immediately put into service in Sikeston, Knaup said.
The money has also purchased supplies to support the survival of pets, Craig said.
The regional committee, which includes representatives of government, health and volunteer agencies, will meet next week to discuss the grant requests, Knaup said. The committee is scheduled to vote on which ideas will be funded at a meeting set for Jan. 21, he said.
Other requests include emergency water purification systems and additional animal care trailers, Knaup said. "It is all mainly disaster-oriented in preparation for when the big one hits, whatever the big one is. I am one of those who says that one of these days it will happen and just have to try to get ready for it."
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