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Local officials take closer look at disaster plans

Sun., Sept. 18, 2005

What if it happened here?

How would local emergency management respond to a disaster, either natural or man-made, on such a large scale that it forced mass evacuations affecting Spokane or Kootenai counties?

In light of criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, officials across Washington, Idaho and the nation have been taking a closer look at their own disaster plans. Tom Mattern, deputy director of Spokane County’s Department of Emergency Management, is no exception.

“I’m glued to the TV myself,” Mattern said of news coverage out of the U.S. Gulf Coast. “Thank goodness we live in a place like Spokane, where something of that magnitude is unlikely to occur.”

Forbes Magazine recently ranked Spokane as the fifth-safest city in the nation in terms of natural disasters.

A much more likely scenario, the emergency planner said, is one in which Spokane County is hit with an influx of evacuees from a West Side catastrophe, such as an earthquake or tsunami.

“It would be a disaster,” Mattern said, referring to the prospect of Spokane being inundated with 500,000 or more people. In fact, he said, there has been no coordination between Western and Eastern Washington in regard to evacuation. “I’ve never seen anything in state (disaster plans) that shows how we will handle that influx.”

A spokesman for the Washington state Emergency Management Division also said he was unaware of a plan to move residents from west to east on a scale like the Gulf Coast disaster.

“Katrina has shown us things we need to look at,” said Rob Harper, public information officer for state Emergency Management. Among those is the possibility of a mass evacuation forced by a catastrophic event on either side of the state.

The Spokane area is most vulnerable to rural and urban fires, winter storms, floods and terrorism, according to the Spokane County Hazard Identification and Vulnerability Analysis. In North Idaho, the biggest threat is from wildfires near urban areas, said Sandy Von Behren, director of the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management.

Von Behren said there have been three presidentially declared disasters since she joined the emergency management office in 1991 – flooding in 1996 and 1997 and the ice storm of 1996.

Both counties are also at risk from disastrous events occurring elsewhere, creating shortages of food, electricity, petroleum and natural gas. The spike in gasoline prices nationally after Katrina proved this all too well.

Whether Spokane County is called upon to react to its own disaster or handle displaced victims from west of the Cascades, local residents can count on Mattern, a former sheriff’s deputy with 16 years experience in emergency management, to go by “the book.”

After all, he helped write the Spokane City/County Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which “defines who does what, when and where in order to mitigate, prepare for, respond to and recover from the effects of natural and technological disasters,” according to an introduction to the document.

Included within the pages of CEMP, as it is known, are every municipality, department, agency or business involved in disaster planning or that could be involved in an emergency response. The county’s 13 municipalities have a role in planning for an emergency, but the big three are Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane Valley because that’s where the population base and resources are.

CEMP does not tell lead agencies how they are going to carry out their roles in a disaster, Mattern said. Instead it outlines who is responsible for each discipline in support of the comprehensive plan.

Under CEMP, law enforcement is responsible for evacuation and movement, including traffic control, roadblocks and escape routes.

“There is a plan in place, but not to the magnitude of evacuating 200,000-plus people,” Mattern said. “We can’t think of a scenario that would require us to evacuate 200,000 people out of Spokane.” He said a plan to divide the area in and around Spokane into nine geographic areas for the purposes of evacuation has been in the works for three months but has not been formalized. Emergency planners, Mattern said, prefer to think of mass evacuation routes in terms of geography rather than specific highways because roads can be impassable in a disaster.

Whether Spokane is evacuating or receiving evacuees, most people would consider Interstate 90, U.S. Highway 2 and U.S. Highway 395 likely routes for moving a lot of people. But where the three routes come together in east Spokane is going to be a bottleneck, Mattern said.

In moving large numbers of people either into or out of the city, planners have had to make several assumptions. Among these are that transportation infrastructure may be significantly damaged and that some people will refuse to leave.

Hurricane Katrina proved these assumptions true in New Orleans, where thousands of poor, mostly black residents were stranded without services. While some chose to ride out the storm in their homes, economic circumstances left many others with no choice but to stay.

By federal and state law, disaster assistance cannot be denied on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin, age, sex, marital status, veteran status or disability. The laws say nothing about class or those without the means to evacuate even if advance warning of a disaster were possible, as is typically the case with hurricanes.

Mattern said it is the policy of Spokane city and county not to discriminate for any reason.

“We will evacuate all persons as necessary,” he said.

The Spokane Transit Authority would play a key role in any mass movement of evacuees.

In the event of an emergency, the Spokane County Emergency Operations Center at 1618 N. Rebecca in Spokane would be activated by the deputy director of the Department of Emergency Management, who runs the department even though the county sheriff has the title of director.

Mattern said disaster plans are never complete, and the Gulf Coast disaster went a long way toward helping other regions and communities plan ahead.

“You end up using somebody else’s misfortune as a training tool,” he said.

Among the lessons of New Orleans were the importance of having an evacuation plan and what to do with evacuees.

The American Red Cross is responsible for mass care and shelter in an emergency or disaster.

The Inland Northwest Chapter of the American Red Cross regularly finds homes for people with emergency needs, said Cynthia Dachtler, disaster services director.

“If it’s one or two, we may put them in a hotel; if it’s 15 to 20, we may open a shelter,” Dachtler said. “If we had 300, we would activate the emergency management plan,” opening shelters throughout the county.

She said such shelters are never identified in advance because people might go there on their own even if the facility was damaged or rendered unsafe in a disaster. The federal Emergency Alert System, which can be activated by local officials or the National Weather Service, would be relied upon to inform people where to go in an emergency.

Schools could be converted into shelters and depending on the scale of an emergency, the Spokane Arena, Convention Center or fairgrounds could be used to shelter evacuees, Mattern said. Tent cities could spring up in local parks. In the event of a mass evacuation from Spokane, neighboring counties also could be called on to open facilities.

Since the Gulf Coast disaster, Kootenai County’s Von Behren has been working with faith-based agencies on plans to open churches to evacuees should the Red Cross need additional shelters in a major disaster. She said she regularly meets with Mattern on interstate cooperation and would be meeting with him soon about the lessons of Katrina.

“We know that emergencies can become very big and borders don’t mean anything,” Von Behren said.

In Spokane County, the Spokane Regional Health District, EMS and Trauma Care Council, the medical examiner and Spokane Mental Health are lead agencies for health and mortuary services. As the designated control hospital, Deaconess Medical Center would coordinate the treatment of mass casualties.

All Spokane city and county agencies have disaster management responsibilities in addition to routine duties. It is assumed that a catastrophic event will overwhelm every social service agency in the county, and possibly the state, according to the Spokane County Comprehensive Emergency Plan, which calls on citizens to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. Citizens are asked to plan ahead for emergencies and assemble supplies that might be needed in an evacuation.

If an event exceeds, or threatens to exceed, the county’s ability to respond, assistance would be requested of state and federal authorities, according to the plan. State and the federal emergency management officials are currently re-examining disaster planning in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which found authorities unprepared for such a catastrophic event.

Emergency management planning is an ongoing endeavor. Spokane and Kootenai counties’ Local Emergency Planning Committees, comprising representatives from government, industry and environmental groups among others, meet monthly. The counties’ comprehensive plans are tested at least four or five times a year, including a full-scale simulation every year. If there is an upside to Katrina, it is that the disaster provided invaluable information for future planning.

“Once you’ve updated plans, you have to train people to the new plan and then exercise it,” Von Behrens said.

Or as Mattern put it, “There are things to learn out of this, but it takes time.”


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