As tornadoes dance across the Midwest leaving wrecked communities and lives in their wake, rivers overflow their banks in many states and wind-blown wildfires scorch parts of California; even as coastal regions already devastated by recent storm damage begin to plan for yet another looming hurricane season ahead, I sit at my keyboard wishing I possessed the words to share with my readers something of what I know first-hand is going on behind the television scenes we all see. Much of my later life has been spent as a trained and experienced Emergency Manager, working both in the field with responders and in the darkened rooms where those who direct the efforts join forces to coordinate a disparate range of people and resources – the unseen and unsung heroes of disaster response and recovery.
My brain cells overflow with memories of sharing the crammed interiors of Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) where hastily-rigged phone lines, radios and generator-powered laptops link a raft of highly-trained Emergency Management specialists who organize and oversee every facet of what the armies of responders in the field are doing. At the center of this “madhouse” of voices, chalkboards and interplay is a nationally-recognized system of functions which must be performed, usually identified by a designated “ESF” number (Emergency Specialty Function). People may come and go, but the function remains manned and the position within the EOC occupied. Thanks to a high level of cross-training, an individual might end up managing a handful of ESF assignments – especially when personnel constraints conspire to take a toll on people who may be working double shifts. In one situation where my usual specialty had been managing volunteers and donations (a gigantic task all by itself), I have also covered resource coordination and fuel deliveries, animal control, and damage assessment – all critical ESF responsibilities - almost simultaneously - sometimes with a phone in one hand and a mobile radio in the other.
It is an “article of faith” in the Emergency Management community, that there is always one person in charge, and in hard-hit Hardee County, Florida during Hurricane “Charley”, where most people working in the EOC in Wauchula had lost their own homes and had family members at risk, the Commander at any particular time carried a hand-carved and very distinctive “baton” as he-or-she walked around the upstairs room we occupied; one of the few buildings still left standing in the county seat. The “passing of the baton” as leadership changed was both visual and smilingly symbolic.
In that particular situation, a high degree of cooperation and communication between EOC staff was necessary: with high temperatures and high humidity, I had to consult with Health & Medical folks when I had volunteers bringing prepared food into the community, and volunteer families bringing children might find worthwhile service for their kids walking dogs and feeding pets at our makeshift sanctuary in the Fairgrounds where we had up to 2,000 domestic pets to deal with at any given time. (Not counting errant alligators which had to be corralled.)
With dozens of large borrowed generators performing needed services at several public utilities, coordinating diesel fuel deliveries and keeping track of it all was just one part of resource management in a county which would not see power restored for weeks, and “Damage Assessment” went on daily.
My admiration for such entities as LOWE’S, PETCO, and WALMART went up several notches as I saw them set up distribution points for trucked-in supplies at central locations. CAUTION NOTE: Plastic money doesn’t work in disasters and cash is essential. Vehicle operation is restricted, gasoline pumps don’t work, but flat tires are plentiful with nails, screws and mixed debris everywhere. One of my personal pleasures was to drive our official van into back streets where I would invite little kids to jump in to enjoy ten minutes of air conditioning; the “Thanks” and smiles on their mostly non-English-speaking faces was one of my special rewards.
Utah is one of many states that participate in EMAC – the Emergency Management Assistance Compact – an agreement which permits our E.M. people to offer help to stricken states when needed, and I was grateful for chances to be deployed as a representative of our state. I have worked with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and wild fires, and I have found that our Utah cadre are welcomed and respected everywhere for our professionalism and sense of caring. Perhaps more than any other memory, I will always cherish the sense of camaraderie which bonded together these makeshift teams of dedicated professionals.
Hardee County’s Emergency Operations Center from which 17 “functions” were coordinated during Hurricane “Charley”. The desk in the foreground was the author’s position when not alternating with partners in the field.
Finding access into storm-ravaged buildings in search of trapped and injured survivors in a region of widespread damage is a primary and dangerous undertaking. In the author’s opinion, Florida – not surprisingly - has the most highly-organized and best-coordinated Emergency Response master plan in the nation. Al Cooper Photos