Weathering the Storm
How local governments coordinate emergency response and recovery for natural disasters.
By Jason Axelrod, American City and County
During the first four days after torrential flooding inundated West Virginia on June 23, just two full-time employees, one part-time employee and a radio technician worked feverishly to coordinate response efforts for Greenbrier County. “If we got two hours of sleep during the first 96 hours, that’s pushing it,” says Al Whitaker, director of the Greenbrier County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and one of its two full-time employees.
The Associated Press reported later that 35,000-resident Greenbrier County was the hardest-hit county in West Virginia from the flooding. After those frantic first four days, Whitaker’s office would operate from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily until Aug. 1, when it returned to normal hours.
When natural disasters occur in non-federal land, initial emergency response coordination usually falls to local city or county governments. Specifically, departments of emergency management or—in the case of wildfires — fire departments generally coordinate response and recovery efforts with local and state agencies, as well as those of nearby cities and counties.
Many cities underwent natural disasters over the past year. Depending on the type of disaster, available resources and state protocols, emergency management methods and timelines can differ widely. However, common tactics among several of those cities’ departments of emergency management included monitoring the event beforehand, prioritizing public safety, relying on other local or nearby state and federal agencies for assistance and utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) to aid in recovery efforts.
Greenbrier County, W. Va.: Flooding
Greenbrier County had experience in dealing with several river-rise floods over the past few decades. But along with the expected river-rise floods, the June flooding event brought with it unprecedented flash flooding, which caused the majority of the destruction.
“The water speed as it was flowing through may have reached 40, 50 miles an hour,” Whitaker explains. “We’ve never had anything like that… we had over 10 inches of rain fall in 24 hours.”
The National Weather Service (NWS) notified Greenbrier County the day before the flood that it would receive rains, Whitaker says. A subsequent statement from the same organization would later call those rains “historic” and “extremely rare.”
On June 23, Whitaker coordinated with his deputy director and
the state to get additional resources and floodwater rescue teams to handle the flooding, which had stranded him in the field for six hours. Even then, the flood’s magnitude had already begun causing issues.
Whitaker says they were having a problem trying to find places to evaluate residents “because this [once in a] thousand-year flood was hitting areas [where] we would’ve normally evacuated people,” he explains. Three locations —Whitaker’s office and two mobile command vehicles — were set up to field the many calls for help. Because Greenbrier County’s fire departments are volunteer-based, a mix of Greenbrier County agencies and city agencies handled first response within the county’s area, he says.
“All city and county governmental agencies, no matter what they think, they play a part in disaster response,” he says. Greenbrier County has a general emergency operations plan that outlines which agencies are to handle specific areas in an emergency situation, Whitaker says. But during the first 96 hours, Whitaker says he was coordinating with many agencies all at once.
“It really wasn’t ‘we do this then go on to the next,’ it was multitasking,” he recalls. Within a few hours, the state government had become involved in response efforts, coordinating swift water rescue teams across the affected area to assist rescue efforts. Because the flooding had affected nearby counties, Greenbrier County had to rely on the state and counties scattered all across the state for aid and resources. The state also helped coordinate aid across state lines — Alleghany County, Va., contributed supplies, while a floodwater rescue team from Bristol, Va., helped as well.
Whitaker later enlisted three West Virginia counties and a city to specifically help his office coordinate response efforts across Greenbrier County. Using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) information, Whitaker says Greenbrier County used GIS to plot points of distribution, shelter locations and temporary debris sites.
The flood incident officially ended on June 29. But the state of emergency that West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared for eight counties including Greenbrier will remain in effect until September 21, according to a governor’s office news release.
Many facts about the flood are still unclear, as Greenbrier County remains entrenched in the cleanup process. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported in late June that the flooding killed at least 17 in Greenbrier County, marking the highest death count of all counties the West Virginia flooding affected. Whitaker says he cannot estimate the flood’s total damage monetarily, though he says that the cleanup of debris that lasted through July cost over $5 million. The West Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that Greenbrier County’s initial road damage would collectively cost FEMA and the Federal Highways Administration $5.1 million.
Whitaker predicts that several months will pass before his department can do a formal review of response processes to determine what could be improved. “We’ll just have to take a look and see,” he says. “We know some things are going to change, but [we’re] trying to figure out how to get the funding and all that, because we’d like to have additional water rescue teams.”
Garland, Texas: Tornado
For 13 minutes on Saturday Dec. 26, 2015 a powerful tornado tore through Garland, Sunnyvale and Rowlett, Texas. The damage in Garland totaled $1.97 million in public infrastructural damages and cleanup, according to Savannah Martin, a senior emergency management specialist with the Garland Office of Emergency Management.
Texas jurisdictions are required to create general emergency operations plans that include several non-hazard-specific emergency and disaster response elements. Garland’s 28 elements outline emergency management methodologies for functions like communications, warnings, public information, recovery, etc., Martin says.
The community had previously experienced two floods in 2015
prior to the tornado, so implementation of these protocols had been practiced in real time.
“Luckily for us, because we had experienced so many events in 2015, we knew exactly what to do,” Martin says. Martin says the NWS alerted the Garland Office of Emergency Management of predicted severe weather in its area, which enabled her office to send out an internal weather warning to other city agencies on the Tuesday before the tornado.
While the tornado hit at 6:46 p.m. that Saturday, storm spotters were activated at 4:58 p.m. and a tornado warning was issued through the city’s outdoor warning system at 6:01 p.m. Within 20 minutes of the tornado hitting Garland, the city activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which is run by three specially trained teams of seven employees across city departments. Local dispatch, fire professionals and police had begun receiving reports of fires, traffic accidents and destroyed homes, Martin says.
Over the following 30 minutes, the EOC would coordinate with building inspectors to begin damage assessments, parks and recreation staff to shelter people and help with debris removal, the Dallas County mobile morgue to deal with fatalities and the nearby Frisco, Texas, Fire Department to help transport injured individuals. The state department of emergency management was notified of the tornado before 8:00 p.m. that evening.
Public safety was the highest priority throughout the emergency management process, Martin says. “We really didn’t have time to think, ‘How big was this?’ because our concern was, we want the people to be safe and we need to get them the help they need,” she explains, noting that search and rescue responses were coordinated during that time.
By 10:45 p.m., Garland’s mayor had signed a disaster declaration and sent it to the Dallas County judge to approve and send to the governor’s office, Martin says. Garland would later get public assistance from the federal government. “To get that disaster declaration signed by the mayor the day after [Christmas], within four hours of the event was incredible,” Martin says. A major contributor to that initial success came from pre-identifying roles to be served in the EOC and the people who would serve in those roles.
Martin’s department heavily relied on GIS to conduct damage assessment through virtual mapping. The department incorporated damage assessors’ notes on building damages into these maps and plotted the tornado’s path in the impact area.
The aid that emergency managers from other jurisdictions in the north Texas region provided by filling positions in the EOC was also invaluable, she says. “This isn’t their jurisdiction; they’re not affected by this, so they brought a good balance and a pair of fresh eyes to our response and recovery operations,” Martin says. The EOC was activated until Jan. 10, 2016, supporting a disaster resource center that met the immediate needs of those affected in Garland, Rowlett and Sunnyvale, Martin says. As the city considers the response a success, Garland likely won’t make many changes to its emergency management operations.
However, the city is still in the long-term recovery process, Martin says. Debris management was regularly conducted until February, the city is starting to enforce building codes again and a long-term recovery committee has been established. “It will probably be several years before the area that was hit by the tornado returns to what it looked like before,” Martin says.
Carson City, Nev.: Wildfire
Unlike tornadoes and floods, fire departments typically handle the emergency management and response coordination for wildfires while on the scene.
Nevada’s capital gets about 10 to 12 wildfires per year, according to Carson City, Nev., Fire Department (CCFD) Deputy Chief Bob Charles. While the city’s latest wildfire on Aug. 14, 2016 encompassed just 258 acres and took eight hours to contain, the fire still cost $300,000 to fight and involved two federal agencies in addition to the CCFD.
A bullet fired during a round of target practice ignited the wildfire, which was aptly dubbed the Shooting Fire, Charles says. Bureau of Land Management (BLM)- and U.S. Forest Service (USFS)-owned land surrounds Carson City, so because the fire reached Carson City and both agencies’ land, local dispatch notified all three when the
the juveniles who were firing at targets called 911, Charles says.
As CCFD was the first on the scene, its battalion chief became the incident’s commander and began assigning roles to his chiefs, mobilizing resources and doing the same for the BLM and USFS personnel as they arrived on scene.
Because the fire was threatening several jurisdictions, all three agencies assumed a unified command strategy — while the CCFD chief acted as the incident commander on the radio, the BLM, USFS and CCFD chiefs made singular decisions together, Charles says. CCFD notifies Carson City’s mayor and city manager whenever an incident occurs, and Charles says both were highly involved in monitoring containment efforts through calls with the incident commander and in visiting the fire area once it was safe to do so.
Because the left side of the Shooting Fire was burning up a hillside, fire officials correctly predicted it could come down the other side and threaten between 50 and 100 homes, Charles says. Fire crews concentrated on that area of the fire first. Ultimately, the crews would fly aircraft to spray fire retardant chemicals on the blaze and use helicopters to drop water on the most concentrated parts of the fire to box it in.
“We safely start from one area, we flank it to the left, we flank it to the right and we try to keep it from spreading on both sides and the forward progress of the fire,” Charles explains. “And that’s essentially exactly what happened on the Shooting Fire.” Fire crews initially implemented a voluntary evacuation of homes in the threatened inhabited area — a Native American colony — into the colony’s gym, located further away from the fire. Once flames got closer and planes were sent to spray fire retardant on that part of the wildfire, fire crews told the residents they needed them to evacuate the area.
“It went from a very orderly evacuation to somewhat chaotic because the fire just grew in size and intensity,” Charles says. “It gets a little bit of coordinated chaos to get people out of there and get our fire resources in there to fight the fire.” Fire departments rely on GIS for several applications in both pre-planning for wildfires and while fighting them, Charles says. CCFD has regularly updated GIS-created map overlays that show topography, where homes are clustered, water systems and other pertinent information.
While fighting fires, incident commanders can have GIS professionals print large maps with updated intelligence of the area. Aircraft flying around a fire can also shoot aerial photos and take infrared scans of the area. When downloaded into GIS maps, this data provides real-time insight into a fire’s size, intensity and potentially threatened infrastructure. “Any of the infrastructure that are in cities [can be] directly threatened by fire,” Charles explains. “And you may not know that until you get that recent intelligence map that you get from GIS on the active fire.”
After being contained, the next two days saw firefighters ensuring the Shooting Fire stayed within the area that it’d already burnt, until the fire reached a controlled status. Afterwards, crews occasionally checked on the area to make sure no embers reignited until it was officially extinguished.The CCFD has standard best practices in place for every fire it fights, says Charles, but it also conducts an after-action review of every incident to examine what was planned, what was done and how it could be done better, says Charles. For larger fires, these reviews are carried out each day.
Even after 28 years of fighting fires, Charles says he and other fire professionals never stop learning. “If you’re not a student of the game and continuing to learn… you can get behind times really quick." He adds that mutual aid agreements—in which fire departments will send resources and personnel to neighboring fire departments embroiled in responding to incidents for 24 hours with no expectations of payment—have proven invaluable in coordinating wildfire fighting.
“All of these individual efforts that we do as a city and county could never be accomplished if we didn’t have the partnerships with our neighboring agencies and our federal cooperators,” he says. Whitaker and Martin echo Charles’ sentiment of the importance in enlisting local and regional support to deal with emergencies. “I encourage all departments to attend any type of planning meetings or reach out to the emergency management [to] see how they can be involved,” Whitaker advises. Martin adds, “Don’t be afraid to ask somebody for assistance, or to ask your regional partners to help come in and fill some of those vital roles.”
Reprinted from American City & County, October 4 issue.
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