By Jeff Noble / staff writer
For most of us, we don’t think about disaster preparation until after it strikes.
We read, see and hear the vivid images of destruction and suffering that plays in print, online, on TV and on radio. Those moments can stay seared in our minds for days or forever.
But to those who respond to disasters, and work behind the scenes in the Tri-County region, the preparation has paid off.
In Corbin, Fire Chief Barry McDonald has been “stocking up” for some time with items needed to fill some big spaces. That’s in case company comes due to a tornado, a major flood, or earthquake, or other possible disaster.
“This week, we received 200 emergency and disaster blankets donated from a local company, 2J Supply. We’ll get two pallets of blankets a week from them, and we might be able to get bottled water and cots as well. If we get more we’ll pass them on to other agencies, after we’re stocked,” he said Thursday.
Working with the American Red Cross, McDonald noted Corbin has at least three active disaster shelters in the city — The McBurney Center, the Corbin Civic Center on Gordon Hill Pike and Immanuel Baptist Church — and is working on getting three more set up. Two of the three are larger churches, and the last one is the Corbin Arena. He pointed out size and amenities matter, especially if shelters have multiple bathrooms and showers, along with kitchens and gymnasiums.
In London, the Laurel County Fire Department is one of the designated tornado shelters in that city, while West London Baptist Church and the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg have registered and trained their congregations to open as Red Cross disaster centers.
The Red Cross disaster director in London, Coy Prichard, encourages other churches and civic groups to do the same.
“To be a Red Cross shelter the facility needs a structure survey to determine size and safety, and then a signed agreement that’s good for one year. In return, we will provide training and insurance. To work in a Red Cross shelter an individual must be registered and have completed the Red Cross background check. We maintain an active shelter list for facilities across the nation, and in the Tri-County region, so we know where we can open a shelter as quickly as possible,” Prichard said.
Not only are structures checked for disaster shelters these days. Building codes have been strengthened in some Kentucky cities, with London being one of them. The city’s building inspector, Doug Gilbert, stated it’s a lesson learned from not just tornadoes, but another natural disaster which could be at fault.
“All the buildings that I’ve checked now in the city have become built to sustain an earthquake. We do the seismic loads for earthquakes now. That’s good, because buildings now are engineered for wind speeds of 90 miles per hour. They were 70 miles per hour when I started in the 1990s. With building construction now, everything’s beefed up for 90 miles per hour wind speed, and that helps if there is a tornado, high winds, or an earthquake,” Gilbert said.
Getting the word out about tornadoes and major severe weather continues to be a top priority. McDonald said Corbin has eight warning sirens located across the city, with all of them repaired and overhauled last fall. Along with the refurbishing, the city’s fire chief added there was also some fine tuning done.
“Before they were overhauled last fall, the sirens went off every time there was a severe thunderstorm watch or warning, and other watches. Now, they just go off only for tornado warnings. We’ve also gone to schools, civic groups and other organizations and have done talks about severe weather safety. And we’re encouraging people to buy weather radios, which many are now ‘all-hazards’ radios, that not just give severe weather information, but information about chemical spills, major disasters and even Amber Alerts. We’re much better prepared now than in previous years, and we’ll continue to strive to improve,” McDonald said.
Recently, London City Council heard about two plans for alerting its residents. One was a network of nine emergency and disaster sirens covering the most populated areas of the city. Another was the use of a phone or web-connected computer system such as One Call Now or Code Red. Both are emergency notification systems that can issue warnings and emergency information to London residents anytime and anywhere. The systems can also be used citywide, or be targeted for specific locations.
Laurel County is one of the counties involved in CSEPP (the state’s Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program), who has offered to pay for the phone call warnings system at $33,000 a year.
London’s public safety director, Rick Cochrane, likes the Code Red system, which he says has one distinct advantage over sirens — more bang for your buck.
“It’s not that we’re ditching the warning sirens. We’re still looking at putting in the new sirens in London, but that does not include the county. With a siren, if you can hear it could depend on where you live, or how the wind’s blowing, or if you’re not at home. You really need to target large areas like trailer parks, because they get the hardest hit by tornadoes. And they’re expensive, with the price for one large siren around $40,000. At one time, we wanted to put a warning siren at every fire station in the country, but we couldn’t get Homeland Security funding. Unlike matching grants, where you have to pay a price to ‘match’ the grant, a Homeland Security grant comes around once a year, you get all of it, and everyone wants it. And they do favor cities and counties with large populations, like Louisville and Jefferson County. Funding’s an issue,” Cochrane explained.
While CSEPP does not have a warning siren in Laurel County, the county’s CSEPP coordinator, Rob Lowe, said there’s a reason for that.
“It’s not a warning siren for tornadoes or weather emergencies. We don’t have a warning siren in this county because there’s no threat from chemical spills to Laurel County from the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond,” he stated.
But Lowe added those Red Cross shelters and other disaster facilities could be used in Laurel County, if there is a possible chemical spill from the Army Depot.
“We would receive the citizens in the Bluegrass area of Rockcastle, Madison and Estill counties in the event of a chemical evacuation, which is highly unlikely. Some 40,000 people could be moved to Laurel County, but we anticipate our target range is about 5,000 citizens,” he said.
While budgeting and grant availability has been a concern for city agencies and volunteer groups, CSEPP hasn’t had that problem. And Lowe pointed out their group goes beyond their original purpose.
“Because of the chemical weapons plant near Richmond, we’re funded by Congress. We prepare a budget every year and we get a guaranteed grant. We will get money until the weapons are destroyed. But even though we’re primarily a chemical hazards organization, we’re an all-hazards organization. We have the equipment, the personnel and the capability to help in any emergency. Last year, with the exception of a small backup unit that stayed for chemical emergencies, all our resources went to East Bernstadt at the request of the judge-executive. We were there to help out after the tornado hit, and stayed for days and weeks. We were prepared, and helped in the recovery effort.”