All hazards event ready for anything

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By Alice Du Pont

Without the resources of larger counties, what do rural counties in do in case of any hazard?

“The first thing you have to do is be prepared. That’s why Gadsden County is hosting this first Rural County Summit. It’s designed for use to listen to the experts and get to know people from other counties that are similar tours, then we want to establish partnerships so that we can talk about our needs and how to get and share resources,” said Major Shawn Wood, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

In Florida, 35 of 67 counties are considered rural. A rural county, according to the State’s definition, is an area with a population density of less than 100 individuals per square mile or an area defined by the most recent U.S. Census as rural.

The summit was held Sept. 25 and 26 at the Florida Institute of Public Safety. Wood said 75 representatives from 15 northwest Florida counties participated. The first day was devoted to first responders and senior officials who discussed all hazards preparedness. The second day was designed for elected officials and their role in a disaster.

Powers and limitations of elected officials change. They learned who is in their jurisdiction has the power to declare a local state of emergency as well as the chain of command from state and federal levels.

“Elected officials play and important role in each of the four phases of emergency management: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. The purpose of them being included in the summit is to help them understand their role before during and after disasters,” Wood said.

For small counties a minor disaster can quickly turn into a major disaster, the group was told by Kimberly Thomas as she talked about the recent Tropical Storm Debbye. A minor disaster is one that is likely to be within the response capabilities of the local government and result in only a minimal need for state or federal assistance. While a major disaster means that a disaster that is likely to exceed local capabilities and require a broad range of state and federal assistance.

“These people have the same issues as we have when there is an emergency. Some of the things we went over were refresher. Things like preparedness and whether counties are as prepared as possible,” Wood said.

Mike Tucker of Lake County in Central Florida shared how they handled the Groundhog Day Tornado that went through that county causing millions of dollars in damages. No disaster is ever like the other, Tucker said, and the better prepared the more likely loss will be minimized. Lake County had been under a tornado watch and the county’s team of responders was keeping a watchful eye out, but like most tornadoes, it hit the ground and moved quickly leaving mass destruction in its wake.

Other real case scenarios included the Minnesota Bridge Collapse and the Oklahoma City bombing.

“Because of where we are, we have to consider an all-hazards approach. We’re near the capital city, we’re between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, the CSX railroad runs right through us as does Interstate 10. Not to scare anybody, but the reality is hazards for us and the rest of these people out here could range from hurricanes and wildfires to terrorism and nuclear power incidents,” Wood said.

Summits like the one held earlier this week address the fact that many of the consequences of disasters are the same, regardless of the hazard. For example, an evacuation could be required because of a hurricane, chemical spill or terrorist threat.

“So rather than planning for each hazard individually, state and local emergency managers use the all hazards approach that we are stressing in this summit that is especially important for rural counties,” he said.