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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Arizona Disasters Highlight Collaboration Among Jurisdictions

Damaged home in Wickenburg
Photo by: DEMA staff
The Town of Wickenburg recently received close to four inches of rain in less than an hour. The resulting floodwaters rushed down Cemetery Wash towards the Hassayampa River, inundating the Vista del Pueblo neighborhood along Constellation Road.

After the water receded, the destruction was obvious--downed power lines, eroded roads, broken water mains, undermined rail lines, mud and debris inside homes, damaged infrastructure, and debris everywhere.

The Town gathered their resources and began the recovery process. Arizona Public Service, and Team Rubicon and American Red Cross volunteers arrived to assist in the clean up, as did Maricopa County employees.

Damaged road in Wickenburg
Photo by: DEMA Staff
A couple of days later, I made a trip to Wickenburg with some Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) coworkers for a meeting with Town officials.

Wickenburg Town Manager Josh Wright organized the meeting as an opportunity for partner agencies to discuss what potential resources are needed to get the Town back to running smoothly, and for its residents to recover.

Maricopa County Flood Control, Public Works, and Emergency Management, DEMA, and the American Red Cross all joined Wickenburg officials to talk about recovery. The meeting included a discussion of infrastructure damage and repair, resources, and how to help the townspeople.

The American Red Cross set up a shelter, which converted into a resource center for anyone affected by the flood and in need of assistance. American Red Cross’s disaster team had been visiting homes to assess the damage.

Wickenburg Resource Center
Photo by: Red Cross
After the meeting, DEMA’s Voluntary Agency Liaison contacted Arizona Southern Baptist Relief and The Salvation Army to join the American Red Cross, along with town and county representatives, to staff the Community Center, a place where people can receive resources and referrals to assist in recovery.

Since I joined the Department, I’ve always been impressed with how well Arizona agencies collaborate with one another. When something happens in one jurisdiction, neighboring jurisdictions jump in to assist with whatever is needed to help with response or recovery.

When a community is unable to respond or recover on their own, they can look towards other agencies to help due to the Arizona Mutual Aid Compact (AZMAC). Mutual aid allows emergency responders to lend immediate assistance across jurisdictional boundaries when needed.

Recovery begins in Wickenburg
Photo by: Town of Wickenburg

In Arizona, all 15 counties are part of the AZMAC, along with many towns, cities, tribes, school districts and fire departments. The ability to respond and assist in a timely manner helps communities like Wickenburg begin the recovery process sooner, getting them back to normal faster.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The world of "what if"

Working in emergency management is like planning for and managing a world of what ifs.  What if the wildfire triggers large-scale evacuations?  What if we lose our primary information sharing tool?  What if flooding isolates a community in need of food and emergency medical access?
Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) and FEMA hosted a workshop to identify many of the what ifs the Whole Community will face during the long-term recovery to an incident at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
DEMA participates in several  Palo Verde exercises a year that allow agencies to practice response procedures, alerting protocols,  protective action decision-making and distribution of public information.  These activities are outlined in the joint emergency response plan, Offsite Emergency Response Plan for Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.   

The workshop was different because it focused on recovery needs at 8 weeks, 1 to 4 years and 10 to 40 years post-incident.  Recovery activities for all incidents are outlined in the Arizona Disaster Recovery Framework.  The focus of recovery is how to best restore, reconstruct and redevelop the social, natural, and economic fabrics of the community.  Specifically, this workshop centered on economic recovery, housing shortfalls, and health and social service gaps. 

How did we solve all that in two days?  As you might guess, we came up with more questions than answers:

  • ·        What if people won’t return to evacuated communities due to fear of radiological impacts?
  • ·        How do you educate/engage the public on actual vs. perceive radiation risks?
  • ·        What needs to be done to sustain the agricultural businesses in Arizona?
  • ·        How do you certify the agricultural products are safe to consume?
  • ·        How are contaminated products disposed?
  • ·        How do you decontaminate critical roadways to ensure efficient transport of commodities?

Even though many questions were left unanswered the workshop was made worthwhile by the diverse discussion and relationships developed.  More than 80 people representing 23 agencies attended the workshop.   Each agency articulated different concerns and approaches to solving the problem.

Representatives from the Arizona Department of Agriculture were concerned about farmers that would need to move their businesses out of the contaminated area.  Would land be available for them to replant?  How long would an embargo on agricultural products last?

Power company representatives were concerned about impacts to the power infrastructure.  Would it be possible to make repairs to damaged infrastructure in contaminated areas and keep the emergency workers safe?  Are incentive programs available to encourage solar energy in the rebuilding of communities?

Even the representatives from the various sections of DEMA had different concerns.  The Recovery Section was looking at the whole picture and was concerned about having the right agencies participate in returning the community to the new normal. The Public Information Office was concerned about the communication of  coordinated and consistent messaging to the public.

Although the workshop focused on  recovery to an incident at Palo Verde, the questions that were raised, the ideas that surfaced and the relationships that were developed will make the emergency management community stronger regardless of the what if.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Monsoonal Heat is on

Haboob rolling into Phoenix.
Photo by NWS/NOAA
It’s 5:30 in the morning and multiple screens are lit up green, yellow, red and magenta with swirling radar images. Voices all around me are engaged in discussion about moisture and heat predictions.  An amazing video of prior monsoon storms is playing on another screen.

I’m in the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service (NWS) where they provide weather data, including forecasts and warnings to the public. And even though it’s not yet 6 a.m., people here, at least, are hard at work.

Governor Doug Ducey proclaimed June 14 to 19 as Monsoon Awareness Week, and I’m at the NWS office to do a few media interviews about monsoon hazards and the importance of preparing before an emergency or disaster occurs.

The big question is “how much rain are we going to get?’” Meteorologists will tell you that the projected monsoon outlook is a difficult one to predict as it’s hard to say when and where storms will develop. Add in the uncertainty of El Nino, and it becomes tougher to predict storms.

“When we look into the summer, we are getting mixed signals. We will get rain, flash flooding and lightning at some point. But we don’t know how much of anything will happen yet,” said Paul Iniguez, NWS Phoenix Science and Operations Officer.

“What we are sure of is that in the near future we will deal with really hot temperatures.  The heat is the deadliest weather phenomenon we deal with in Arizona. Year after year, it’s the heat that truly affects people,” Iniguez added.

This week, the first Excessive Heat Watch  and Warning was issued by the NWS. An excessive heat watch is issued when temperatures are expected to be above 105. An excessive heat warning is issued when three or more consecutive days are expected to reach higher than 105.  For parts of Arizona this week, very hot temperatures of 110 to 115 degrees are possible. These temperatures can have serious health impacts on individuals.

The Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) has tips on staying safe during the extremely hot summer months.

While we are waiting for the storms to arrive, it is a good idea to take some steps now to prepare for the potential monsoon dangers.

Write a family communication and evacuation plan. Practice the plan with your family so everyone  knows where to go if you do have to evacuate.

Build an emergency supplies kit for your house and a smaller one for your vehicle with the necessities  you need to survive on your own.

Pay attention to the weather forecast. Know where it floods in your area. Visit Flood Smart to see if you  live in a flood prone area and talk to your insurance agent about flood coverage.

 Visit AzEIN for more information on monsoon preparedness

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Include pets in emergency preparedness

Since June is National Pet Preparedness Month, I thought I’d take some time to write about my dog Bella. My family adopted Bella about 2 months ago. She is a sweet, precocious 1-and-a-half-year-old Italian Greyhound, Lab mix. My husband, daughter and I have made room for her in our hearts and in our emergency preparedness.

As an important part of our family, Bella is also a part of our emergency planning. If a disaster does happen, we want to know what we will do with Bella in any circumstance, whether we are sheltering in place or evacuating our home.

We recently reviewed and updated our family communication plan and emergency supplies kit. Our plan covers what we would do in the event of an emergency. It also has important contact information, including the phone number for Bella’s veterinarian. An evacuation route is part of our plan. We practiced it with Bella over the weekend. My daughter and Bella had a grand time practicing leaving the house and meeting at our designated spot.

We researched where we could take Bella if we had to go to a shelter.  In our community, animal shelters are often set up near shelters for people with help from the Humane Society and local animal shelters. I also wrote down phone numbers for pet-friendly hotels and asked my veterinarian about boarding kennels.

Our emergency supplies kit has enough food, water and other supplies to last every member of the family for three days. We looked at ours and added extra water for Bella. We packed some dog food and treats. We placed a spare leash in the kit, and my daughter added a couple of doggie toys. It’s a good idea to include a picture of your dog and a copy of his/her immunization records as well.

Make sure your pet’s identification tag is current and securely attached to his/her collar. In many areas dog licenses are mandatory. Check with your local county shelter. A microchip is a great idea for identification purposes. Owner contact information is on a chip that is inserted under the animal’s skin. A microchip won’t be lost if your pet loses his/her collar. Be sure to review the information on the chip, especially if you have moved or changed phone numbers.

Pets may act differently during and after an emergency. They may try to run away and hide. They may act aggressive out of fear. The Humane Society of the United States suggests bringing pets inside early before a storm, finding a safe place for them in the house, and keeping them close after an event.  The Humane Society also has suggestions for feral and outdoor cats, horses and farm animals.

I’m not expecting a devastating disaster in our community. I don’t sit and think about it on a regular basis. But disasters usually don’t warn us that they are going to happen. It is best to be prepared than caught off guard. So we review our plan, practice evacuating, and restock our kit once a year.

The Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) has many preparedness tips. You can also find information about potential Arizona hazards, along with and ongoing emergency updates.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Forecasts, Floods & the Challege of Communicating Risk

Emergency managers in the Gulf Coast and East Coast states got some good news last week when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center said the 2015 Atlantic hurricane season will “likely be below-normal.”

While the prediction of a 70 percent chance of 3 to 6 hurricanes grabbed all the headlines, it’s NOAA’s forecast of a 70 percent chance of an “above average” Eastern Pacific hurricane season that piqued my interest. Statistically speaking, that translates into a 70 percent chance of 15 to 22 named storms, and 7 to 12 hurricanes, including 5 to 8 major hurricanes. The Eastern Pacific is circumscribed by NOAA as the region of the Pacific east of 140ºW north of the equator (see the National Hurricane Center website for updated storm outlooks).

Satellite photo of Hurricane Norbert (source: NASA)
When you think of hurricanes, you don’t think of Arizona. Wildfires yes, but not hurricanes. And yet tropical storms and hurricanes from the Eastern Pacific have had serious impacts on the state. Last September, remnants of Hurricane Norbert unleashed record rainfall and flash flooding across Arizona, including the Phoenix Metro Area. Not a week later, Hurricane Odile brought more rain and flooding.

Flooding is the most common natural disaster in the United States. In Arizona, wildland fire danger (e.g., fire restrictions) and flood risk are two measurements that people need to stay informed about.

On my way to the gym Saturday morning I heard a story on NPR about the recent floods affecting Texas. The reporter asked a man whose mobile home was damaged by the floods why he didn’t have flood insurance. “I never thought it would be this bad,” the man answered. “I was here in ’98 with that flood and that was the worst I’d ever seen. And they said it was a 500-year flood.” The interview made me think—on a Saturday no less—about how we contextualize flood impacts and the possible impact it has on people’s perception of flood risk.

The labels used to describe rain and flood events can be misleading. For example, a “100-year flood” isn’t a classification of flood that occurs once every 100 years; rather, it means there is a 1 percent chance that a flood of that magnitude will happen in a given year. The worry is that phrases like 100-year flood can give people a false sense of security, and negatively inform their perception of the threat and decision to buy flood insurance.

The man in the NPR interview thought he’d experienced an once-in-a-lifetime flood in 1998. He heard it explained as a 500-year flood and maybe took that to mean there wouldn’t be another flood like it for another 500 years, so why buy flood insurance.

I won’t pretend to have the answer; in fact, I’m not sure that labels like “100-year flood” are a substantive problem to communicating flood risk and/or persuading people to get flood insurance. But the fact that hydrologists aren’t enamored with terms like “100-year flood” because it “is a misinterpretation of terminology that leads to a misconception of what a 100-year flood really is” should count for something.

An easy solution is to explain flood impacts in terms of the annual risk (e.g., a 100-year flood would be called a .01% flood). Another option is to stop historicizing flood impacts and risk all together.

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to prepare for flooding, including:
·         Research your home’s flood risk;
·         Talk to an insurance agency about insurance for your at-risk home or business;
·         Prepare for the possibility of an emergency that could cause an evacuation; and

·         Make FloodSmart® improvements around your home or business (e.g., elevate the furnace, water heaters and electrical panel).