Tuesday, September 20, 2005

StormReady or Not, Here It Comes


Watching the news unfold in New Orleans, we’ve learned painfully that the belief that someone is in charge when disaster strikes can be misplaced. Unfortunately, we also learned that too often, no one learns until it’s too late.

That’s why the National Weather Service created its StormReady communities program. It’s designed to encourage public agencies to prepare for severe weather, and to assure the public that there is a plan that make sure communications doesn’t break down and that first responders have the skills to save lives and property.

It sounds pretty basic. And it is. And yet, neither Memphis nor Shelby County are on the list of about 950 communities – including Nashville/Davidson Metro Government and Hamilton (Chattanooga) County - which have received the designation from the National Weather Service.

The heart of the program is coordinated communications. As the National Weather Service says: “The key to disaster management is effective communication…To be recognized as StormReady, an agency must have a 24-hour warning point to receive NWS (National Weather Service) information and provide local reports and advice. This office might be a law enforcement or fire department dispatching point.”

The Weather Service added that the U.S. is the most severe weather-prone country in the world. Americans face an average of 10,000 thunderstorms; 2,500 floods’ 1,000 tornadoes and six deadly hurricanes a year. Considering that 90 percent of all presidential disaster declarations are weather-related, the StormReady test is one every city and county should want to pass.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it seems a good time for Memphis and Shelby County Governments to review and critique their disaster preparedness programs. That is another benefit of the StormReady program.

Of course, there is much more than severe weather looming in Memphis’ future. There is the “big one,” the day when the New Madrid Fault Zone rumbles once again with a magnitude 7.0 or 8.0 earthquake. As FEMA officials point out, the devastating flood of New Orleans was one of the top rated natural disasters predicted for the U.S. Ranked above it, however, is the major earthquake predicted for the New Madrid earthquake fault zone and its potentially devastating impact on Memphis.

With both the Shelby County Homeland Security Office and the Memphis and Shelby County Emergency Management Agency in place here, it would be natural to believe that we have someone in charge and a plan in place.

To give the public confidence about the future, city and county governments should cooperatively launch a complete top-to-bottom review of all disaster plans. As we learned from the Gulf Coast, four years after 9/11, the lack of a dependable system of communications system is disastrous. Perhaps that is how StormReady could provide the greatest security of all, because of its emphasis on communications.

Memphis and Shelby County have shown that we can cope with ice storms and straight line winds (AKA Hurricane Elvis), but cope is the operative word. In the devastation that will accompany a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault, our previous bouts with ice and wind will have done nothing to prepare us for when the downtown bluffs liquefy and so much of our river frontage begins its trip toward New Orleans.

There is a certain sense of denial in Memphis about the “big one,” although scientists now predict that pressure is building on the same fault that produced the 8.1, 8.0 and 7.8 earthquakes in 1811-1812. In fact, of the four largest earthquakes recorded in the continental United States, these are three of them.

In a new study reported in the June 23 issue of Nature, the probability of a magnitude 6 earthquake in the next five decades was put at 90 percent. Chances for a magnitude 8 event are 7 to 10 percent. The new findings contradict a study in the 1990’s that suggested that strain on the fault zone is minimal.

If you want your confidence shaken, just visit the website for Memphis and Shelby County EMA at www.memphisema.com. It’s billed as the unofficial site for the agency, but the City of Memphis and Shelby County websites link to it. It’s a troubling indication of the priority that emergency services receives, if that sense of priority isn’t shown enough by the fact that EMA offices are located in the basement of Memphis City Hall. When the major earthquake hits, if the EMA leaders can climb out of the rubble, they can always try to get to the command center.

For years, many scientists have predicted that the most devastating earthquake might be along the New Madrid Zone rather than the much more publicized San Andreas Zone in California. For an equal number of years, California officials have been reworking and redefining its earthquake plans to send the message to its citizens that they are prepared for the inevitable.

It would be good for local officials to send the same message. We begin by becoming a StormReady community. Oakland shows us that it can be done -- not Oakland, California, but Oakland, Tennessee, the small town east of Eads across the Fayette County line on Highway 64. It is already a StormReady community.

Amazingly, emergency officials said recently that they are working on an evacuation plan for our community. Perhaps when disaster strikes, all of us just need to head to Oakland.

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