Archive for Thursday, September 15, 2005

Katrina offers lessons for emergency managers

Regional planners say considerable work already done to address problems seen in Gulf Coast

September 15, 2005

Although the circumstances in the Midlands are much different than those in the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina will provide lessons in emergency management, said two professionals in the field.

Erin Lynch, homeland security and emergency services director for the Mid-America Regional Council, said the devastating hurricane and subsequent events in New Orleans would provide a laboratory that tested assumptions and practices much differently than tabletop exercises.

"There's no substitute for an actual event," she said. "Everyone in our field is looking at what transpired in New Orleans and saying, 'What can I get out of this? It really is a dynamic environment.

"I think we are very eager to be able to study what occurred and see what the challenges were in New Orleans and apply that to our planning and operational management."

Neither Lynch nor Johnson County Emergency Preparedness Director Mike Selves expect a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina to threaten the Kansas City metropolitan area, but do see the need to continue to refine and test interlocking regional, county and local emergency plans in light of what is learned from the disaster.

Among the criticism leveled in New Orleans was the evacuation plan that left many poor and frail citizens behind. Selves said he didn't see a need for Johnson County to amend evacuation procedures outlined in one of the plan's 22 chapters to address mass evacuations.

Selves said the possibility of an event that would require a mass evacuation of Johnson County was so remote that it would be a waste of resources to plan for them.

The Wolf Creek nuclear energy plant was far enough away it wouldn't require mass evacuation should it experience a catastrophic failure. Residential areas along the Kansas River susceptible to the slowly rising floodwater where an evacuation could be needed and planned were limited, he said.

"I suppose there could be an asteroid strike, if they knew where it was going to strike with two or three days warning," Selves said. "Other than that, I would have difficulty thinking of an event where we would have time to evacuate or evacuation would be the appropriate thing to do.

"All these things are done taking into account the resources we have available and the likelihood of something happening. We have to triage our response."

A natural disaster that does threaten the county wouldn't require vacating large sections of the county.

"We do not and will not tell people to evacuate in the event of tornadoes," Selves said. "We've always told people to find shelter and stay there until it's all clear. We've always warned about trying to outrun a tornado."

The county plan does address evacuations on a lesser scale for such things as hazardous chemical spill and flash flooding. It establishes who would make such a call -- an incident commander for localized events, a mayor or Johnson County Commission, commission chairman or governor for large-scale events.

It was in those limited evacuations that Hurricane Katrina might provide a lesson, Lynch said.

"There is always a value in taking a look at what we have on evacuation and reconsidering it," she said. "But not on the size and scale of New Orleans."

Selves said considerable attention has been given to coordinating traffic in a crisis. That work included identifying areas that could cause traffic snags such as flood-prone road sections and cataloged all major intersections.

Moreover, defined evacuation routes are to be identified for all facilities with 500 or more pounds of certain hazardous materials on site.

One challenge facing the Kansas City metropolitan area is coordinating different emergency responses and communications during an event in an area of multiple jurisdictions that includes a state line.

Again New Orleans offered an example of the extreme, with a near total breakdown of police communications in Katrina's wake. Lynch said there was an awareness of the regional challenges involved and although she said she would never say the New Orleans' experience couldn't happen here, much work had been done.

"There has been a sincere effort to address inter-interpretability of communications," she said. "But more needs to be done because whenever there is an actual event or exercise, you always hear concerns about communication."

It was a concern that drew the interest of metro emergency management planners even before homeland security money was made available after Sept. 11, Lynch said. That effort included cataloging the different communication systems used in the eight-county region and develop a strategy for overcoming the problem, she said.

But communication problems also arise with difficulties in conversing up and down and across jurisdictional boundaries, Lynch said. That is one of the principle missions of MARC. It is charged with regional planning and through its Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Committee reviews local emergency management plans for compatibility -- a job assigned to Selves.

MARC doesn't have any manpower to respond to emergencies, but it does have some equipment, Lynch said. To make disaster response dollars stretch further by eliminating redundancy, MARC secures those items, such as a recently acquired mobile command center housed with the Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department but available to other jurisdictions should it be requested.

"If we do our job right, we develop the structures and organization so local agencies can meet the need," Lynch said. "What we are trying to do is facilitate coordinated planning."

Although MARC does review them for compatibility, local emergency management plans are created by individual jurisdictions and are meant to provide local responses for disasters and recovery.

Johnson County's addresses everything from debris removal to animal control, establishing responsibilities for county departments and agencies. It establishes the policy-making authority of the Johnson County Commission and commission chair.

Although state statute gives the county the primary responsibility for emergency management and response, the county encourages cities to develop emergency operations plans, Selves said.

De Soto's plan was developed with county staff help and includes a recent update of its hazard mitigation plan, identifies dangers and vulnerabilities and suggests to lessen consequences when money is available. Selves said the city had to approve the plan if it wanted to share in federal mitigation funds.

The city of De Soto's emergency plan, just like that of the county, establishes a chain of command for emergency response, duties of elected officials and staff, and command center (City Hall), City Administrator Greg Johnson said.

Much like Selves, Johnson said he couldn't conceive of a natural disaster that would wipe out emergency and day-to-day operating services as Hurricane Katrina did on the Gulf Coast. De Soto's plan should allow the city to respond to local emergencies, he said.

When the city council adopted the hazard mitigation plan last month, it was agreed the city should schedule a tabletop exercise of its emergency management plan.

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