Responders: Be prepared for possible tornadoes

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

OEM director: Disaster can happen in an instant

Tornado alley is gearing up for what appears to be another busy season in the four-state area.

As recently demonstrated in Baxter Springs, Kan.; Quapaw, Okla.; and central Arkansas, disaster can strike at a moment's notice.

Storm sirens in Baxter Springs sounded one minute before the tornado struck the town of about 4,200 residents, leaving dozens injured and damaging or destroying 100 homes and 12 businesses.

"This demonstrates why we need to be prepared at all times," said David Compton, director of the Barry County Office of Emergency Management. "Everyone should have a disaster preparedness plan."

While there was no significant damage in the Barry County area, Compton urges local residents to prepare and maintain 72-hour kits in the event of a large-scale natural disaster. These kits are essential in having everything individuals or families may need for the first 72 hours following a disaster of any kind.

"Local officials will get into the disaster area to determine the needs and contact state and federal resources," Compton said, "but it can take up to 72 hours before a state or federal agency can get resources into place. If there is one thing we learned in 2005 from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, we know people have to be prepared to take care of their own needs."

Some of those needs include shelter, food, water, prescriptions, first aid, sanitation supplies and child and pet care items.

Fortunately, Region D has a Multi-Agency Coordination Center, DMACC, which allows for distribution of local assets on an almost immediate basis, providing victims with supplies and personnel to get into storm damaged areas within minutes or hours of a storm. The organization is based on the mutual aid model used by fire departments and law enforcement personnel. If another town or agency requests mutual aid, responding agencies are prepared to provide resources needed.

"We were monitoring the radio all night and were prepared for requests for assistance from Baxter Springs and Oklahoma," Compton said. "Joplin provided initial response to the Baxter Springs area, and no other requests for assistance were made."

Emergency preparedness includes awareness as well as the physical necessities brought about by disaster.

"People should know the risks of their particular area," Compton said. "If a family lives in a low-lying area, they should know that they might be prone to flash flooding. Even is it hasn't happened in over 100 years, the potential is there and an evacuation plan should be in place."

Families should form a plan to locate loved ones in the event they become separated and phone service is out. Parents with children in school should be aware of the district's evacuation plan and know how to locate and retrieve their children from the district's safe location.

At times, local phone service may be intermittent or non-existent. Compton urged people to designate both a local and out-of-town contact for emergency notifications and make sure family members have contact information with them.

In this technological age, sometimes computer service is not interrupted and messages can quickly be sent and retrieved via email, Facebook or other social networking sites.

Residents should keep at least half a tank of gas in their vehicles if evacuation is likely, Compton said. Those without vehicles should make transportation arrangements with neighbors or family members and plan to evacuate immediately if local officials advise them to do so.

"People should be aware of their local shelter locations and places that will accept pets in an emergency," Compton said. "Unless an animal is a designated service animal, they will not be allowed in a public shelter.

"Each 72-hour kit should contain at least one gallon of water per person per day, food items that are not likely to spoil and can be opened and consumed without having to be cooked, any medications needed for the individual, as well as battery-operated flashlights and radios. Food and water supplies should be rotated out on a regular basis to keep those items fresh and consumable.

"Each community in the Barry and Lawrence county area should have its own disaster plan already in place. Residents should familiarize themselves with their city's emergency plan and plan several evacuation routes in case their primary route is not passable. By being familiar with the plan, the process will run more smoothly."

Schools, daycares and businesses also have disaster plans, and employers, especially in businesses that have high turnover rates, should drill employees on the plan at least once a year.

In the event of evacuation, residents should have copies of all important documents in their 72-hour kits. Those documents should include wills, birth and immunization records, medical records and contact information cards, as well as cash and coins, property, health and life insurance documents and a copy of all credit cards and a photo ID. That information will be useful in the event credit cards are lost or stolen. Original documents would ideally be stored in a bank safety deposit box for safekeeping.

In the event of a weather-related disasters, homeowners should also take precautions with their home by turning off electricity, gas and water, time permitting.

"We saw in the Joplin event where power lines were down, propane leaks were prevalent and utilities were disrupted," Compton said. "By learning the proper way of shutting down the utilities, a homeowner may reduce the amount of damage to their home."

Those having to remove debris following a storm are urged to wear long-sleeved shirts, jeans, sturdy shoes and gloves in addition to other protective equipment.

"As we saw in the Joplin tornado, there were some pretty nasty injuries due to debris," Compton said. "People need to watch out for sharp edges on metal, downed power lines and other hazards that could cause injury or even death."

Another of the lessons learned from the Joplin tornado is that people did not immediately respond to the warnings, seeking additional information from other sources such as the television, radio or the Internet.

"When a warning is issued or the sirens sound, people need to take cover immediately," Compton said. "Looking at the Baxter tornado, many of its residents did not have enough time to respond once the sirens did sound. The funnel formed that quickly, and as a result several people were not able to seek shelter and were injured as a result.

Area residents should know weather-related designations used by the National Weather Service.

* A tornado watch means people should remain on alert for severe weather.

* A tornado warning means that a severe storm has been spotted or indicated on weather radar and residents should take shelter immediately.

"Preparation is the key to successfully surviving a disaster," Compton said.

More information on disaster preparedness may be obtained online at www.FEMA.gov/AreYouReady, www.DisasterCenter.com/Guide/Family.htm and for pets at http://www.ASPCA.org/Pet-Care/Disaster-Prepared.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: