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Technology backbone of disaster response plan

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and other state agencies have taken the real-life lessons of Hurricane Katrina to upgrade the use of technology in preparing for and responding to large natural disasters.

In the early days after Hurricane Katrina, response was hampered by lack of communications. Land telephone lines were down, as were cell phone and Internet communications. That left satellite radios and HAM radios as the options for local, state and federal officials to communicate regarding response to the disaster.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, MEMA was one of few state agencies that had equipped its vehicles with satellite radios.

“Provided your vehicle is not destroyed, you can talk on a satellite radio as long as you are in a place where the receiver is on the ground and the satellite is overhead,” said MEMA executive director Mike Womack. “You can’t use them in a building or with obstructions like trees overhead.

Satellite radios and some HAM radio operations were the only methods we had for communicating with the Coast early on. Since then a lot of other agencies have purchased satellite phones or radios. Not just MEMA but other state agencies, as well, have many more of these than we had before Katrina.”
Satellite radios are limited because they can’t be used inside a building unless there is an outside antenna with visibility to a satellite. A second limiting factor is that after pressing the mike to talk, there is a three- to five-second delay until the radio links with the satellite, unlike a traditional radio system where it is immediate when you press the mike.

“You have heard live broadcasts from the battlefield where you hear the reporter speak, and then there is a period of silence,” Womack said. “There is a lag when taking the signal up to the satellite and bouncing it back to the earth. It takes a few seconds for that to happen. Certain responders who need to have immediate communication, law enforcement in particular, don’t like that time lag. But it is the most reliable system in a catastrophic event.”

MEMA uses an Internet-based system called WebEOC for local governments to request any type of assistance whether it be food, water, ice, personnel or equipment.

It is similar to a system where one can go online and order something through a large retailer.

“You go in and have a series of menus and say, ‘I need this particular resource’,” Womack said. “That request is sent electronically to the state EOC (Emergency Operations Center). We determine if we have what is needed on hand or need to acquire it, and then notify the local community that it is on the way and when they should expect it. If the Internet goes down for any reason, the local government can use the old method of calling or faxing to make the same request. We would still use WebEOC, but we would key it in from this location.”

Vital geography

Another way technology is vital in natural disaster recovery efforts is the use of geographic information systems (GIS). During Katrina, MEMA had the cooperation of numerous state and federal agencies, as well as private companies, who provided sophisticated GIS information to aid in search and rescue, damage assessment, and to identify where resources needed to be placed. Since the storm, MEMA has worked to make sure those relationships are formalized so the agency will be able to use the same resources in future disasters.

“Currently, the GIS resources we are utilizing are either through state agencies such as the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality or the Institutions of Higher Learning, college students and faculty and their geospatial capability,” Womack said. “We also have contractors identified that we can bring in if we need to increase our GIS capabilities. It is very critical to have high-resolution, geo-referenced data.”

Good high resolution photographs are valuable especially if they are geo referenced so you can use a computer to click on the location and grid coordinates.

“After Katrina in many cases, you didn’t know where roads were,” Womack said. “Even people who knew the area couldn’t identify where they were. With GIS, we could identify exactly where we needed to go whether for debris removal or search-and-rescue operations.”

While there were difficulties with technology use immediately following Katrina, Womack said that doesn’t mean we are too reliant on technology. He thinks Katrina demonstrated that when all the systems get knocked out, people will be inventive and get the work accomplished.

“It may take a little longer, but if everyone understands what we are trying to accomplish, they will find ways to save lives and protect property,” Womack said. “That is what you saw in Mississippi, inventive people who overcome the obstacles. It happened at every layer of government. Local, state and many federal partners were very resourceful in what they did.

“Let’s go back to the definition of ‘catastrophic.’ This is an event that overwhelms the capacity of every layer of government. I think in Mississippi we got on our feet fairly quickly, overcame all the obstacles and were able to get the response moving in a very positive fashion. But we should never expect government would be available for any eventuality. We would spend 95% of our entire federal budget if we had to be available for any eventuality. It is all a matter of prioritization and having a balance between being prepared and not spending money that we don’t have.”

Dress rehearsal

Earlier this month, a mock disaster exercise drill called Hurricane Zora was held on the Coast involving FEMA, MEMA and all other state agencies that have emergency responsibilities, and a number of county governments. The purpose of exercise was to identify shortfalls. After the exercise, key players discussed problem areas.

“We will use the next 45 days to do corrective action,” Womack said. “The issues we talked about are things like counties not getting complete information. We think there might be some problems with the software system itself. We will work with vendors on that. And there may be some training issues. There may have been some things staff didn’t understand.”

A whole series of disaster response technology equipment developed over the past 10 years or so is used by different responders to aid them in the work they do. For example, the National Guard can use heat sensing devices to find injured people.

“Some local communities may not have all the high-tech equipment, but certainly state agencies use the knowledge tools they have,” Womack said. “Each state agency has in its tool kit, its own special technology that allows them to do their job in an emergency situation.”

Hitting the highways

To help aid in evacuation and return after the storm, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) posts information on travel conditions at www.mstraffic.com.

“On that site, we post road conditions and traffic alerts,” said Bob Chapman, emergency services manager, MDOT. “Also, we have installed pavement traffic counters that, when activated, help facilitate processing of evacuation traffic. If a road becomes too congested, we can publicize alternatives routes to get people around. These counters are also used to advise MEMA of shelters that need to be opened in other locations to accommodate evacuees.”

Chapman said one of MDOT’s biggest Katrina lessons was that the agency needs to be self sustaining for 72 hours after landfall. Shortages of fuel, water, food and lodging for employees opening the roads were an issue after Katrina.

Now MDOT has underground storage tanks and transportable fuel tanks to be self sustaining with its fuel. MDOT has a reserve of approximately 144,000 gallons of gas and the same amount of diesel.

“In addition to the fuel reserve, we have accommodations to support our emergency workers whether our enforcement side assisting with traffic control or our maintenance and construction workers,” Chapman said. “We have secured travel trailers, and will have a travel trailer site at Lyman on Highway 49 to take care of our workers. That will take care of our lodging. We have supplies of water and food we have stockpiled that we will be using periodically and replenishing those supplies.”

Freer flow

A technological improvement from MDOT is, to alleviate traffic congestion seen on U.S. 49 during hurricane evacuation, time switches have been installed on all U.S. 49 signals from Interstate 10 to Interstate 20 that will allow the police to control traffic lights. This allows the freer flow of traffic while alleviating a police officer from having to stand in harm’s way in the middle of an intersection to direct traffic.

Another improvement is that during Katrina, MDOT received so many telephone calls for information that the lines were jammed. Now there is a new MDOT crisis call center that will be manned with 20 volunteers rotating through 24 hours per day to talk to people before, during and after the storm.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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