Disasters or emergency situations, both man-made and natural are nothing new but the proliferation and severity of them in 2017 seem extraordinary in recent years.
Enormously strong Atlantic Ocean hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and the Caribbean. Almost half of Puerto Rico’s residents were without power through the Christmas holiday, related hurricane flooding inundated the Houston metropolitan area. Wildfires raged up and down California, incinerating homes and taking lives.
Missouri doesn’t suffer from the direct impact of hurricanes but it has tornados, floods and the potential of massive earthquakes. And the possibility of man-made disasters, such as the shooting in Las Vegas where 58 people died, or the possible increase in other terrorist incidents exists.
“The man-made disasters are just as threatening as the natural ones,” said St. Charles Police Capt. Chris Hunt, director of emergency planning for St. Charles County.
It is Hunt’s job to deal with emergency and disaster situations along with representatives of emergency providers, community and social service groups. Recently, the public has been asking about how to survive in the face of the unthinkable. The advice they’re getting back isn’t complicated – support emergency responders, do some personal preparation and planning before anything happens, and use common sense when it does.
“At a minimum increase awareness,” advised Michael Thiemann, coordinator of emergency management and public information officer for the Metro West Fire Protection District, which provide services for 80,000 people in West St. Louis County. “Don’t wait until the alarm sounds on your phone to think about being ready. It doesn’t work on disasters, you have to think ahead of time, you have to prepare.
“What can people do? They have to have a plan.”
Planning can involve thinking about obvious issues. Modern technology, for example, may not work in disasters involving earthquakes or high winds because cell phone towers collapse or can be knocked over. One possible solution is to designate a meeting place where family members and workers can go.
Becoming aware of your surroundings
Missouri being the middle of the country gets some reprieves from Mother Nature’s harshest weather, but it does have its own natural peculiarities. Thiemann said a lot of transient people who move to Missouri may not know about them but they need to.
“Just know the disaster profile. Know that we can have major earthquakes, and we sit on the New Madrid fault line,” Thiemann advised. “Know that we have tornadoes – tornadoes happen year round: we’ve had Good Friday tornadoes, we’ve had them on Easter, we have tornadoes in different seasons that are unexpected.
“St. Louis is kind of a melting pot for a lot of things and it is for weather as well. We’ll go, as everyone knows, from 80 degrees to 60 degrees to 20 degrees in a matter of hours in some cases.”
Karen Yeomans, area design engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation [MoDOT], agrees. MoDOT handles snow and ice removal on state roads, closes roads when flooding occurs and handles bridge and overpasses inspections in the event of serious earthquakes. It is one of a number of agencies that work together in emergency situations.
“Being aware, just paying attention,” Yeomans said. “It’s probably one of the more surprising things we find. All of a sudden it’s snowing and people are saying ‘I didn’t know it was going to snow.’ Or during the flood along the Meramec [River], people starting trying to drive around barriers. They’re not paying attention to what’s going on.”
Hunt doesn’t think there is anything really new when it comes to dealing with disasters and emergency situations. But like Yeomans and Thiemann, he’s concerned about public awareness. “If you went out to the street and asked somebody how many tornadoes touched down in St. Charles County,” Hunt said. “The response would be ‘Oh, none.’ Not true, we had two [in Portage des Sioux and Wentzville].
“I’m not saying it’s the boy who cried wolf syndrome but people get so complacent,” Hunt said. “That’s what we don’t want with these tornado warnings and watches. We want people to be cognizant of, them, pay attention to them, and set their phones up to get the alerts and local media. These conditions could change at a moment’s notice. We don’t want people to get complacent and say it’s not going to happen here. It happens every year.”
Knowing what could happen
When a disaster does happen – particularly a tornado or disaster that may cause significant property damage and threats to public safety – nearby residents and businesses also need to be cautious.
“We don’t want you out walking around,” Hunt said. “I know that’s what people want to do, they want to go out and survey the damage.” Staying put allows responders to account for people and can prevent accidents or injuries related to debris.
People need to take a “common sense approach” to disaster areas. “I cannot tell you how many water rescues we’ve done where, once we’re done with the rescuing, we’ve asked ‘where were you heading?’ And they, ‘I was just going to look.’ You don’t go to look,” Hunt said.
Don’t touch power lines and avoid metal fences which can conduct electricity, Thiemann said. Generators fired up in emergency situations push power on to downed lines and electrify metal fences that are overlapping or touching power lines. If people smell natural gas, it should be turned off because gas leaks often prompt early fires in disaster areas. People have to learn where gas valves are located. And gas lines have to be turned on by a licensed professional, he added.
Preparing for the worst
When something bad happens these days, people generally turn to local, state and federal government and community groups for help, said Martin Rueter, director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army Midland Division, which serves Missouri and Southern Illinois.
In the 1970s and 80s, people seemed more resilient perhaps because communities seemed more close-knit and families didn’t live throughout the country. “The reliance on local government is a little more significant,” Thiemann said.
The Salvation Army is often on the scene at major disasters and involved with feeding and helping emergency responders and victims. Both Rueter and Thiemann say they see less preparation before incidents happen, but they and their colleagues stress the need to prepare, including learning emergency response and stockpiling supplies.
Some of their suggestions include having a kit in a vehicle and at home with fire extinguishers, first-aid kits, water bottles, granola bars and nonperishable food, flashlights, medicines, blankets and warm weather clothing and blankets if its winter. Cash may be needed to buy things if online purchasing and cell phone aren’t available, Hunt advised.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] recommends stocking enough supplies to sustain people for 72 hours. Emergency kits, or tote bags, should also include copies – front and back – of credit cards, driver’s licenses, insurance cards and policies, social security cards, birth certificates and medical prescriptions.
“Everything we have is automated so can you imagine if you have to reassemble that from scratch and that’s what people are doing from a shelter,” Thiemann said.
Having a kit available can be helpful in other situations. “You come across a terrible crash on Manchester Road and you feel inclined to help but you get out and can do nothing but stand there, you’re going to feel rather helpless,” Thiemann said. “We’re going to get there but it may be three or four minutes and that can feel like an eternity and it very well is for those in serious condition.”
Another issue that has emerged is what happens when a disaster takes out a personal or business information system – the data developed and stored in computers. Nick LaRosa, president of CMIT Solutions, said buildings, computers and other items can be insured, but “you cannot insure your data.”
“The only way to insure your data is to have a really good back up and a really good disaster recovery plan,” LaRosa said.
Cloud-based backups of data and storing data offsite can be critical. Using an internet-based DNS or Domain Based System also can help, LaRosa said.
Preparations also may require more than just amassing supplies. Having a fire extinguisher is one thing, knowing how to use it may be another. Thiemann, Hunt and emergency responders have information and even classes available to deal with those issues. The Metro West Fire Department is working closely with the St. Louis Community College District offering courses in emergency preparedness. FEMA’s and other agency websites also offer information.
Worrying about the future
Emergency planning these days is an involved process that it expensive, complex and evolving. Counties and states have emergency management agencies that bring together police, fire, ambulance, local governments, and social service and community organizations in a unified approach to plan and prepare for, respond to and recover from possible situations big and small. Rueter said many communities and states follow FEMA’s National Incident Management System, which grew out of the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
But recent emergencies may prompt changes. Rueter said FEMA’s new director is now advocating that people need to not rely on the central government for help in disaster and emergency situations.
“With all the wildfires, hurricanes and floods that we’ve had here both in Missouri, Texas, New York, you name it, the coffers are getting run down,” Rueter said. “What he is advocating is that local governments need to figure out what they are going to be able to do to be able to help folks out.”
Hunt said St. Charles County now has a 230-page emergency operations plan that addresses areas such as communications, transportation, fire, emergency medical services [ems], hazardous materials and man-made incidents such as mass shootings. Emergency responders and other agency representatives gather in one room at an emergency operations center to deal with crisis situations. “It works,” Hunt said.
St. Charles County also is developing a new emergency operations center at the new county police department headquarters in O’Fallon.
Two years of once-in-500-year floods have taxed the agency, Rueter said. One of the issues is finding and replacing trained volunteers that are the backbone of FEMA’s response efforts. Many of the available volunteers are older.
Yeomans and other emergency responders say the public has to recognize that taxes pay for emergency response – the investment and need are real.
MoDOT’s St. Louis office provides 200 snow plowing trucks and chemical and salt treatments for interstates such I-270, I-64, I-70, I-55 and other routes. “If it has a number or letter its state maintained,” Yeomans said of the roads MoDOT maintains. Those trucks run 12-hour shifts based on weather conditions with drivers supplemented by MoDOT management and office staff. But a lack of funding also has meant staff leaving for better-paying jobs with the knowledge that a highway engineer won’t have to drive a snow plow.
The need for trained personnel to respond to an emergency situation, even those that seem to be small, isn’t going away.
In 2016, freezing rain hit at rush hour in St. Charles and St. Louis counties causing many auto accidents. “It was enough to do some significant freaking out by everybody,” Hunt said.
He recalled that a school bus with special education students got stuck on the side of a road in a rural area. “The bus was running out of gas and a fire truck was able to get there but there was no way they could transport the kids back to schools,” Hunt said.
The situation eventually was resolved after effort and time. “It was a tough one for us,” he said.