TOP STORY >> Evacuation plan
Leader staff writers
The tornado that ripped through Beebe the evening of Jan. 21, 1999, destroying much of the older housing, two churches and a new school building, changed the way Beebe emergency workers plan for disasters, Fire Chief William Nick said Friday.
Before the tornado, the city had plans that called for sheltering in the schools and churches — plans that relied heavily on emergency equipment and on help from neighboring McRae.
But many of the would-be shelters were destroyed in the storm, along with the fire departments in both cities.
Now Nick says when emergency workers plan, they think about the available resources, and then they divide that number in half and figure out how they could manage with less.
Deadly tornadoes, terrorist attacks, accidents at Pine Bluff Arsenal, hazardous material spills on the highway or a freight-train wreck near a populous neighborhood are scenarios that force local officials to ask how prepared their communities are to deal effectively and efficiently with such incidents.
They are well-prepared, they say, although officials in New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast might have said the same before Hurricane Katrina put them to the test.
Aside from being hit by another tornado, Nick says he meets regularly with Beebe Police Chief Jess Odom to work on how to evacuate in the event of a chemical spill on the railroad or on Hwy. 67/167.
In many cases, he said, the evacuation routes and the shelters that would be used would depend on the direction the wind was blowing.
“We plan for all contingencies,” he said, adding that includes working with the schools on their emergency plan.
“We do meet and talk about it regularly,” Nick said. “It’s a work in progress. You can’t set things in stone because you never know what the situation might dictate.”
But Nick, like the rest of the country, watched the television news coverage of inadequate evacuation plans in action as Gulf Coast residents fled hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and he says it might not be a bad idea to thoroughly review Beebe’s plan just to make sure they haven’t missed anything.
Cabot, like Beebe, is split by the railroad and Hwy. 67/167, and Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh said an evacuation plan in the event of a chemical spill has been in place long before he was mayor.
Like Beebe, Cabot also learned about the devastating effects of tornadoes when its downtown area took a direct hit almost 30 years ago.
At least five copies of the city’s emergency plan for most scenarios is distributed among the mayor’s office, the fire department and the police department, Stumbaugh said.
He is fairly confident that since the plan is frequently updated with the phone numbers and pager numbers of the city’s emergency workers, the city is in good shape if disaster strikes. Since he took office, the city has bought a mobile command center and a truck big enough to pull it wherever it’s needed, Stumbaugh said. Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson and Police Chief Jackie Davis have been instructed to evaluate the command center to make sure it is completely equipped, he said.
But Stumbaugh is concerned that, for now, the city’s communication system is housed in the police department that is just a block away from the railroad. If a train derailed on that section of track, the police department would have to be evacuated, he said, adding that he and several on the council believe it is time to consider moving that department.
The New Madrid fault line, that experts say will produce an earthquake of such a magnitude it will rival any in California, runs through the southern part of Lonoke County. Cabot likely won’t be hit, but the mayor says he has contacted the governor’s office and the Depart-ment of Homeland Security and asked that Cabot be added to the emergency plan for dealing with the aftermath.
The key is knowledge, communication, coordination, preparation and practice, according to Kathy Botsford, director of the Pulaski County Office of Emergency Services. Over the years, area officials have dealt with floods, tornadoes, ice storms and various spills and have conducted both tabletop exercises and full-out drills to test their response.
Evacuation routes have been laid out in case an incident at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, which is currently destroying its stockpile of aging chemical weapons, affects central Arkansas residents including those in Lonoke and Pulaski Counties.
Blue CSEPP (Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program) signs mark the escape routes and a mobile chemical decontamination unit is stationed at England, where Lonoke County officials and responders have earned high marks with annual practices, according to Kathy Zasimovich, Lonoke County CSEPP coordinator.
Once a year, Zasimovich and Jimmy DePriest, director of the Lonoke County Office of Emergency Services, participate in a several-county drill simulating an accident at the arsenal. Local mayors, including County Judge Charlie Trout-man, Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson and several other officials convene in the central command office to respond to the mock drill, dispatching law enforcement officers to set up road blocks or direct traffic to evacuation routes.
The drill always grades out high. Just last week, the county received a $500,000 Homeland Security grant to upgrade its command and control center. Different evacuation routes are available for Lonoke County residents depending upon where they live, which direction the wind is blowing the chemical plume and how crowded the roads are, according to Zasimovich.
“We make a whole calendar out of our evacuation routes,” said Zasimovich. “They’ve been in place for 15 years.”
DePriest said the only established evacuation routes in the county were for problems at the arsenal.
He said he would assume the schools would have their own plans, as well as the cities.
When tornado warning sirens were sounded in Lonoke on Saturday night, one of the city’s three sirens was out of service, and remains so, according to Mayor Thomas Privett.
He said he thought he had found replacement parts for the 20-year-old siren, but they weren’t compatible. “We’ll try to find $20,000 somewhere,” the mayor said, adding the siren had been down since lightning struck it about six weeks ago.
“We’re not going to let price keep us from warning our people,” Privett said.
Lonoke policemen and volunteer firefighters are trained as first responders, Privett said. Lonoke also has a company on retainer to help clear city streets of limbs and debris in event of a tornado or ice storm. “We are first on the list,” he said. “We did that after the big ice storm.” What sort of response or evacuation depends on what sort of catastrophe, the mayor said. “We’ve got ‘Jaws of Life’, all that stuff that Homeland Security’s given us. We know we’re in harm’s way if we have a problem in Pine Bluff (at the arsenal.)”
In Pulaski County, Botsford works with officials, police and fire fighters including those in Jack-sonville, Sherwood and unincorporated north Pulaski County to create emergency plans and sometimes to participate in exercises.
For instance, when Jack-sonville’s Ashland Chemical runs its annual exercise, not only company workers, but firefighters, police, and other emergency responders including Hazmat teams from both the county and Little Rock Air Force Base come to help or standby, Botsford said. The exercises are graded. Botsford said her office has received 800 system radios that will be programmed and distributed to mayors, police chiefs, fire chiefs, ambulances and others so the various agencies can communicate with each other.
Botsford’s office is helping revise the Sherwood emergency operations plan with Michael Clayton, the city engineer. “We’ve been working with them for the past several months on upgrading,” she said. “They want to have an emergency operations center, where key command and control decision makers can gather when there has been a disaster to coordinate the information. “The center would have maps, maps of damaged areas, statistics, placement of public utilities, — all the information in one place.”
A map of the area’s expansive soils would be helpful to determine which neighborhoods might need to be evacuated in a flood or earthquake, for instance.
Officials could make vulnerability assessments and have information about which businesses or industries have or store hazardous materials. “We have no evacuation plans,” Sherwood Mayor Bill Harmon said. “We have sirens and check them every Wednesday.
“Our emergency management team leader is city engineer Michael Clayton, who dealt with FEMA during the last ice storm.”
Harmon said there wasn’t much manufacturing involving hazardous materials in Sherwood.
“Every time we practice our plan, we find things we need to work on,” Botsford said.
Botsford said the University of Arkansas at Little Rock had conducted a countywide commodity flow. Pulaski County has a high volume of traffic on I-40, on the railroads and on the Arkansas River, creating a lot of opportunities for spills and accidents. Botsford said the county was fortunate to have experienced, well-trained and equipped responders available from Little Rock Air force Base. “They are great to work with,” she said.
“We had a lot of practice on evacuating people back when the Vertac incinerator was in operation,” Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim said.
He said Hwy. 67/167 would often be the evacuation route of choice, but that there were others as well. The Jacksonville Community Center, the boys and girls club and the senior center are among the sites designated for emergency shelter.