Officials say Tri-County is prepared
Good people, great resources, plans in place just in case
By Jeff Noble and John L. Ross
When it comes to local dedication and regional cooperation, the Tri-County rates high on the list of areas being prepared for natural emergencies.
It was never more tested than on March 2, 2012 — the night an EF2 tornado ripped through the East Bernstadt area of Laurel County, killing six people, injuring scores of others, and causing around $12 million in damage.
Most recently, it was put to the test on a much smaller, but still dangerous scale. That was on April 17, when heavy rains and flash flooding caused evacuations and rescues in parts of Knox County.
During those times of crisis, it’s the people who respond first who shine, said Kentucky Emergency Management’s (KYEM) Region 9 Response Manager, Jerry Rains.
“We have a lot of good, experienced emergency managers that have been in place for awhile, and a lot of resources in the region,” Rains said.
Knox, Laurel and Whitley counties are a part of Region 9, which also covers Bell, Clay, Harlan, Jackson, Rockcastle, Lee, Owsley and Leslie counties in southeastern Kentucky.
One of those experienced managers is Albert “Abby” Hale of Laurel County.
“I don’t know that you can ever be ready, but on paper, as far as being ready, I feel Laurel County is prepared, if we follow the plans. We have a county emergency operation plan, the schools have a disaster plan and our daycare centers have a plan that’s turned in to us. We have specific plans in place, and if we follow them, we should be in good shape,” said Hale, the county’s Emergency Management Director.
The East Bernstadt tornado was part of a massive tornado outbreak in eastern Kentucky that also affected towns like West Liberty and Salyersville. Throughout the night, the National Weather Service forecast office in Jackson tracked and warned people about the danger the twisters and storms brought to the region.
“March 2, 2012 was a terrible weather event, but because of the actions people took, a lot of lives were saved. Days before March 2nd, people were alerted to the potential of just how dangerous that storm system was. On the day of the storm, people prepared, schools dismissed early, and many people took action well ahead of the storm. I think last year’s tornado outbreak in the region has increased awareness throughout the Tri-County area, as well as southeastern and eastern Kentucky,” said Shawn Harley, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the Weather Service’s Jackson office.
Both Harley and Rains noted one offshoot of the tornado has been a dramatic increase in the number of people taking storm spotter training courses in the Tri-County region, as well as an increase in people purchasing NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radios to warn them of threatening weather and other natural disasters.
NOAA is the parent organization of the National Weather Service.
According to Rains, what has helped this region in major natural disasters has been the ability to get shelters set up quickly to put up people affected.
“A lot of it comes from CSEPP (Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program), a U.S. Department of the Army program which is part of the Blue Grass Army Depot, near Richmond. Because of them, we have a large sheltering capability, with cots, blankets, pillows and supplies available. Once you can find an available place to shelter people, we can rush those supplies there immediately. Since the East Bernstadt tornado, we’ve looked aggressively for places to shelter people in the event of a tornado, flood, or disaster,” Rains pointed out.
The weather service continues to work on making the region a part of NOAA’s Weather-Ready Nation, a program which Harley says “helps to build community resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events.”
“It gets people prepared and what actions to take should extreme weather take place. Our ‘Storm Ready’ program is part of that, and across Kentucky, Knox County and 54 other counties are ‘Storm Ready counties,’” Harley said.
Rains added, “We’re also looking at mitigation grants for tornado shelters, outdoor warning sirens, drainage projects in flood-prone areas, or buying houses out in flood-prone areas. Last December, we did a review and upgrade of each county’s emergency operation plans.”
In February, Emergency Management conducted a severe weather exercise that all Kentucky counties participated in. Rains plans to have three exercises in Region 9 this year — including one on severe weather — while a statewide earthquake exercise will be held in 2014.
“Not only are we planning, but we’re also testing and exercising those plans in the event of a real disaster,” he said.
Among recent upgrades at the Weather Service office was one involving their new “Dual-Pole Doppler Radar,” which was completed last November. Harley said the new radar improves precipitation estimates, gives a better distinction of rain, snow, sleet and hail, and better detects debris from larger tornadoes.
And earlier this month, the Weather Service unveiled “Impact Base Warnings,” which better describe the intensity of particular weather events, such as tornadoes, flooding, heavy rain, winds and winter storms. They are now being used across Kentucky and much of the central United States.
Hale mentioned the East Bernstadt tornado “opened a lot of eyes, not just to the fury of severe weather, but to how warnings and preparation can save lives and property.” But no matter how much cooperation and dedication can be done by regional and local authorities, first responders and governments, it comes down to one thing.
Are you prepared?
He added, “Most people did heed the warnings a year ago, and more so now, when the weather gets severe. But a few did not heed the warnings. You preach it and you put it out there over the media, but some just don’t pay attention. The final decision comes down to the individual.”
Harley agreed. “It’s the individual’s decision when they hear or see threatening weather, knowing what to do, practicing a plan with their family, and, when it needs to be done, putting that plan into effect. That’s called being prepared.”
And when it comes to being prepared, Knox County is as ready as it can get.
That is according to Mike Mitchell, emergency management director for the county.
“We’ve met with the Local Emergency Planning Committee,” Mitchell said. “But you can have all this stuff in place, all these plans in place — and when it comes, there’s the (added) stress you go through.”
He said that makes being prepared that much more important.
And when disaster does strike, Mitchell said all emergency and related crews are ready. The recent heavy rains caused a great deal of flooding throughout eastern Kentucky, including Knox County, Mitchell said.
But he said the county’s teams were ready.
“We’ve got a great SORT team here,” Mitchell said. SORT stands for Special Operations Response Team.
Mitchell said that team, combined with other emergency and related crews in the county, work well during natural disasters and emergencies.
“The fire department, and all them go through training,” he said. “They go through it together and work really good together as a unit.”
He said Knox County’s topography makes handling a natural disaster challenging for emergency crews.
“The contours of the land work against you,” Mitchell said. “You can have the water rise so fast.”
He said recent floods affected some residents who said they’d lived in their homes for more than 50 years and had never seen it get so bad.
“The last couple years, (natural disasters) have intensified from what was normal in the past, it appears to me,” Mitchell said. He has been with the county since 2011.
“The first week on the job we went through a natural disaster,” Mitchell said. “And that was the flood event in KayJay.”
One person was killed in that flooding, he said.
When flooding does hit, Mitchell said it can take residents by surprise.
“The flooding can be such a widespread event,” he said, adding they even had to deploy teams for swift-water rescues.
The city of Barbourville recently announced a new step in emergency preparedness. Mayor David Thompson announced the Red Cross approved the First Baptist Church in Barbourville as a “safe haven” during emergencies which may strike the city. He explained that he and Fire Chief Doug Dozier attended a Local Emergency Planning Commission meeting to discuss ways to pull a community through a disaster, such as “tornadoes, fires, a bus or a plane crash.”
He said the Red Cross offered its “highest praises” to the church and said the church was “prepared and ready” to handle a crisis.
“This is good for the city,” Thompson said.
Whitley County is also ready, according to Emergency Management Director Danny Moses.
The flood wall, he said, likely has helped lower the flood threat.
“There have not been any significant changes to flood-prone areas,” Moses said. “However, since the flood wall was built, the flooding risk has decreased.”
The flood wall, according to Moses, was completed in the 1990s. It runs parallel to Second Street and meets on the south end of Main Street.
January flooding in Whitley County challenged the county’s emergency readiness, and Moses said then that no matter what flooding comes, Whitley County was ready.
“We have a fully-staffed Emergency Operations Center,” he said. “We also have county employees (who) are on call, so if an emergency situation arises, we will be ready.”
Are residents prepared?
“They are as prepared as you can be for these types of situations,” Moses said. “Most people are aware of weather radios now.”
During the January flooding, Moses said area residents stay ready for intense weather situations.
“We’re pretty lucky in this area,” he said. “Most people who live here know how to prepare.”
And while Mitchell felt natural disasters were on the rise, Moses feels the opposite.
“The number of natural disasters seems to be on the decline,” he said. “We’ve had less wind and snow events in the past year than we have had in past years.”
Area schools are also getting prepared, he said.
“All schools in the county have procedures in place in the event of severe weather and routinely do drills with students,” Moses said.
Disasters prove more costly as people move into storm-prone areas
By Michael Fitzgerald / CNHI News Service
There’s yellow police tape at the entrance to the Plum Island Beach on a Monday in mid-March. Behind it a generator is running. A Komatsu front loader and a Caterpillar digger sit nearby. Off to the right, a large backhoe is visible above rooftops crammed onto every possible lot.
What you can’t see are 13 houses that have been deemed uninhabitable, including three that have been torn down and three others that eventually will be razed, victims of yet another ocean storm.
About a quarter mile west, a crowd jams the Plum Island Taxpayers and Associates Hall for the monthly meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance. The group coordinates preparedness efforts for Plum Island and neighboring coastal areas here along the Atlantic seaboard north of Boston. Nine television cameras train on residents and property owners, most of them angry, all of them concerned about what’s happening to their community in the face of nature’s irresistible force.
One of them is Cheryl Jones-Comeau, who had to abandon her house temporarily after this storm, which hit three days earlier. She’s had a house on Plum Island for more than 30 years. In the past, islanders have bulldozed up new sand dunes during low tides to protect their houses from flooding and erosion. She wants to do so again, but the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulates pushing around sand on the barrier beach.
Comeau’s had it with that.
“I’m tired of DEP – they don’t want us living there anymore,” she says in the meeting. “There are houses that have been here a couple of hundred years. It’s too late. We’re here. We have to work with what we’ve done.”
People like Comeau who live in places prone to natural disasters know how to prepare, to have rations and a supply of water on hand, to bring patio furniture inside to limit damage from approaching storms. But the last decade has seen super storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac and monster tornadoes like the ones that swept through Alabama and destroyed one-third of Joplin, Mo., in 2011. A major Midwestern earthquake along the New Madrid fault is expected any moment.
Our preparedness efforts are rooted in 1950s-era Civil Defense. Are we ready?
The question matters even more as the climate changes. Some data suggest the weather is getting worse. For example, wind speeds during storms have picked up over the last few decades, according to MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel. But weather records don’t go back far enough for scientists to say conclusively that storms are any worse or more frequent because of climate change.
Regardless, storms today do more damage. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was the first storm in the United States to cause more than $1 billion in insurance claims. For all of the 1980s, there were $263 billion in insurance claims due to natural disasters. In 2005, Katrina alone caused $46 billion in insurance claims – out of an estimated $81 billion in damage. For the first five years of the 2000s, $420 billion in insurance claims were filed.
Hurricane Sandy was never more than a Category 3 hurricane, albeit the widest hurricane ever recorded. When it slammed into New Jersey and New York in October 2012, it was a mere tropical storm. Yet it’s estimated to have caused $50 billion in damage.
The storm that hit Plum Island in March and made Cheryl Jones-Comeau leave her house didn’t even do enough damage to qualify for state disaster relief.
Here’s why natural disasters are doing more damage: The United States has more than doubled in population since 1950, to 314 million. That growth centers on urban areas, especially along the coasts. Fifty-three percent of Americans now live in the 17 percent of counties sitting on a coast. Development is happening in vulnerable places.
People are more prepared for disasters in the wake of events like 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, say experts including Arnold M. Howitt, co-director of the program on crisis leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Preparation in America depends on two things: local dedication and regional cooperation. The strength of the relationships between state and local officials helps communities respond when a natural disaster has wiped out the cell phone network and power grid.
But storms are brazen trespassers, sneering Hulk-like at puny human boundaries. So a lot of relationships are needed.
Plum Island’s Merrimack River Beach Alliance isn’t unique but offers a good model for preparedness. It brings together representatives from three communities, three private citizens groups, state politicians, and at least seven state agencies, plus the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Guard, the Coast Guard and FEMA are not typically at such meetings.
The beach alliance has no formal authority, but given the breadth of its representation, it has clout, and has had some successes. “The level of communication has gone exponentially upwards,” says Bruce Tarr, a Massachusetts state senator who is its co-chairman.
Better communication is key for smaller communities, which by themselves don’t have the resources to respond effectively to disasters.
Laws have been changed to allow FEMA to bring in personnel and equipment ahead of major storms, which helps speed response, notes Timothy W. Manning, deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness at FEMA. But he says centralized command otherwise does not make response faster.
“The most important thing is being prepared yourself, having your family ready,” said Manning.
The United States’ start-local approach can lead to scattershot results, as Sandy showed, with some New Jersey communities suffering major damage while neighboring towns with better preparation did better.
That raises the question of whether the country should centralize disaster planning, a la the Netherlands, which responded to the catastrophic North Sea Flood of 1953 with the Delta Works, a massive waterworks project.
Arjen Boin, a governance expert from the Netherlands who holds appointments at Utrecht University and Louisiana State University, scoffs at the idea that the Netherlands works as a model for the vastly larger United States.
“Nobody lives on the coast” in the Netherlands, he says. “Development never got out of hand. Because once they live there, you have to spend all that money protecting them.”
In the United States, disaster preparation at the local level vies for resources with roads, playgrounds, schools, senior needs and other issues. In smaller communities, the fire chief or police chief may double as the emergency management official.
A building inspector may not seem as important to the town budget as a teacher or a police officer. But communities that suffer severe damage in a disaster often turn out to be communities that have poor building codes, have lightly enforced existing codes or allowed development in vulnerable areas.
“Cost is an issue for every community,” says Louise Comfort, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management. She says communities have to balance the risks of storm with the need to respond to them.
Risk is the crucial calculus. Communities can’t put a Category 5 hurricane or an EF-5 tornado into the town budget.
Smaller things come into play, too. On Plum Island, the houses now falling into the ocean used to be protected by an offshore sandbar. That sandbar has moved south, exposing these homes to increased erosion effects.
When you build your house on sand – or a barrier beach – you have to know that things might shift.