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Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2014

Officials conduct earthquake exercise

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

BENTON -- In the event of a major earthquake in this area, shelter and communications are going to be key factors.

Issues related to shelter and communications following a major earthquake were discussed by Scott County governmental and emergency services officials during a tabletop exercise Tuesday at the Scott County Jail.

Joe Burton, emergency management director for Scott County, said the exercise was very well attended.

"This is the first I think we've had where, other than elected officials, all you folks who would be part of it were here," Burton said.

One of the goals for the exercise was to practice using the county's emergency operations plan.

"Plans are good; they meet requirements," Burton said. But things will rarely happen as planned, he noted.

One of the key issues discussed is having preset locations for incoming donations of food and supplies as well as distribution centers so those providing assistance know where to bring it and the public knows where they can come get it.

Security at these locations as well as local places that will have some supplies in stock such as Wal-Mart or water bottling plants is also an issue for consideration.

County Clerk Rita Milam asked how people are going to know where to go for help or shelter.

"Is it feasible to mark those somehow?" she asked.

Burton said the state directed they not do so because a building marked in advance could end up being damaged during an earthquake and not be safe to take shelter in creating liability issues.

County Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn asked if there could be a designated area, however, as "we're trying to save lives."

"I think we need to designate collection points," said Tom Beardslee, chief deputy for the Scott County Sheriff's Department.

"We are going to designate buildings that are Red Cross approved," Burton advised. These buildings would then serve as shelters and food/water distribution centers. "That is an ongoing operation," he said.

As there is no way of knowing in advance which buildings would still be safe following an earthquake, however, officials discussed the possibility of having check-in points from which people are sent to shelters.

As roads and bridges may be damaged, however, Burton said "we may have a major problem taking them anywhere."

Engineers who are part of the SAVE Coalition are supposed to inspect buildings following a disaster to advise whether they are safe to take shelter in, Burton said.

Presiding County Commissioner Jamie Burger asked Lloyd Smith, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, if a "good Samaritan" type law could be passed for those providing shelter.

"They need to be immune from lawsuits in these events," Burger said.

"We can look into that," Smith said. He said there would have to be some sort of "trigger" for it to go into effect such as the declaration of a disaster by the president. Officials suggested the trigger should occur at the state level.

Burton said he is not as worried about people in rural areas as those living in small cities such as Sikeston, Scott City and Chaffee.

"They're not going to be able to take care of themselves," he said.

Burger said one thing that was confirmed during Tuesday's drill was that satellite phones would not initially be able to contact officials in Jefferson City as the high volume of calls during the statewide exercise Tuesday resulted in a busy signal during his attempt.

Amateur radios were also reportedly jammed.

"Their communications are inadequate," Burton said. "For three days, we're on our own."

He said it may actually end up being even longer before outside help arrived. "I say three weeks," Burton said. "Three weeks is the minimum."

And during that time even though help may be on its way, "we have to assume it's not on its way," Burton said.

Officials agreed that two-way radios may end up being the only available communication method.

Smith suggested having a secondary call-in number located outside the seismic zone for satellite phones to reach officials who could then forward critical information to Jefferson City by conventional means.

Burton also suggested weather radios will be a good way to get information out to the public. "These things are battery powered and should always be on," he said.

Satellite Internet access was also mentioned as a way to possibly communicate when landlines and cell phones are down.

Burton said the media might also be important for getting information to the public following a major disaster. "The media is going to be a resource for us," he said.

The importance of educating the public in advance was also discussed during the exercise.

"Public education is a big issue," Burton said. He said he speaks to groups as often as he is invited but "the other big issue is getting them to buy into it for themselves."