As winter temperatures officially debuted in southeast Kansas Thursday, approximately 40 civic and business leaders from throughout the region gathered to participate in a disaster-readiness exercise fittingly fashioned around a mock weather emergency.
Hosted by the City of Independence, the “table-top” disaster drill brought together city department directors; city, county and state emergency preparedness experts; area health care professionals and first responders; church and school leaders; animal welfare professionals; and representatives from major industry and retailers to discuss the city’s current state of readiness for a major winter weather event and inter-agency coordination to manage such a situation.
Facilitators for the exercise were Independence Police Captain Lisa Helkenberg and Director of Safety and Code Enforcement David Cowan. They outlined a mock scenario of a major winter ice storm hitting the Independence area, resulting in hazardous road conditions and the potential loss of power to the area for an extended period. They explained the drill was designed to evaluate current resources available in the city, county and beyond to ensure the safety of residents during a disaster as well identify any gaps or opportunities for improvement in preparedness plans.
The mock scenario involved an early advisory from the National Weather Service approximately two days before the expected storm with an early prediction of a mild impact for southeast Kansas. As the storm grew closer, however, the forecast changed drastically to a prediction of 3 to 5 inches of ice, bitter cold temperatures and strong winds, requiring quick action and maximum available resources for response.
Participants in the drill talked through every phase of the response, from early communications to residents regarding how to prepare; to securing resources for backup water, power, food and supplies; to management of utilities and streets; and capabilities of law enforcement and emergency fire and medical responders.
“The drill was an important exercise in teamwork, particularly evaluating how our public- and private-sector entities would work together in this kind of situation,” Helkenberg said. “It also allowed us to test our assumptions about our existing emergency plans and pinpoint what might be missing.”
In a “hot wash” or recap of the drill at the end of the session, Cowan covered the identified strengths and weaknesses of the community’s current level of emergency preparedness.
“One of our key learnings was that we may be lacking on appropriate shelter facilities for citizens and pets in the event of a cold-weather event, as many of our designated shelter sites are without backup generators and would be unable to generate heat during an extended power loss,” Cowan said. “We also learned, however, that we have extensive private-sector resources available and willing to be shared by our churches, retailers, health care providers and industries – such as Coffeyville Resources, which maintains its own well-equipped fire department with highly trained firefighters willing to deploy to help wherever needed in the area.”
Cowan said other key areas of follow-up include researching backup power options for Penn Terrace Apartments and other senior living facilities as well as the AWOL animal shelter; developing a registry of vulnerable residents who may be dependent on electricity for medical devices and make sure a plan is in place to assist these individuals during a power outage; and preparing a communication for residents with tips on emergency preparedness in their own homes.
“Of course, the time to prepare for a disaster is long before it happens,” Cowan said. “All in all, the drill was a very enlightening exercise that, more than anything, showcased the depth of expertise and resources we already have in our community. With this practice and the experience we’ve already had with similar severe weather and last year’s water crisis, I feel confident in our ability to successfully manage a coordinated response to virtually any disaster.”