Kansas City Emergency Management Office Helps City Recover After Ice Storm

Emergency management agency aids Kansas City, Mo., after it's buried under tons of debris.

by / January 4, 2009
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Citizens of Kansas City, Mo., were told that an arctic front would interrupt their mild winter, but didn't expect to find two inches of ice covering the city on the morning of Jan. 31, 2002. Making things worse, the storm topped the ice with two inches of snow. The fairy-tale appeal wore off quickly as officials realized that trees were snapping under the icy weight, streets were blocked and most residents were without power.

According to Michael Shaw, assistant director of the city's Public Works Department, approximately 500,000 trees were destroyed or damaged, which created 1.6 million metric tons of debris. Falling tree branches knocked down power lines and blocked 20,000 streets, leaving 75 percent of residents without power for weeks.

After 81 days and $26.8 million, the city was back to normal, but not before the importance of having emergency management contract clauses, an emergency management office and detailed documentation were reinforced.


Phasing Out

City officials divided the response effort into three phases. "First we tried to unblock as many streets as possible so we could get police, fire and any kind of medics in, and also utility companies so we could get power restored to critical areas," Shaw said.

Phase one also included plowing snow and ice from the roads and trimming "tree hangers" -- limbs that threaten to create more problems (i.e., knocking down power lines, falling into streets or onto houses). The city allotted 48 hours for this phase, but trimming tree hangers and the hazardous task of cleanup continued for about four months, according to Forest Decker, the city forester of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.

In phase two, a task force was created to relocate large debris to collection sites and dispose of it. The task force consisted of high-ranking employees, such as directors, assistant directors and division heads, led by Mark McHenry, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. "I took on the role of the incident commander at the request of the mayor and city manager," he said. "I am the parks and recreation guy, so we deal with trees all the time -- but it was more than just trees."

Collecting and disposing of 1.6 million metric tons of debris was no small task. The city had three debris-staging locations: one north and one south of the city and one at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League. "I think we calculated it one time that we had picked up enough debris to fill Chiefs' stadium 76 times," Decker said. "It was a ridiculous amount of debris." The debris was either mulched, composted or burned.

Phase three was curbside bag collection of debris from residents' yards; trimming remaining trees in the rights of way; and sweeping city streets, which was allotted 30 days for completion.

The cleanup cost the city $26.8 million. "We felt good about getting it all cleaned up," McHenry said. "It took 12 hours of work a day for 81 days."

McHenry said it was obvious the storm's aftermath would leave the city needing state and federal funding, and it would be only a matter of time until a state of emergency was announced. "FEMA comes in a pretty big way, because they deal with public [and] private property and set up a disaster-relief office," he said.


Spurs Growth

After the storm, the city realized it needed an improved and reliable emergency management office.

The city's emergency command center has advanced greatly compared to the makeshift office the task force used in the City Hall basement. "It's a very convenient location, and whenever we have an emergency now, we've all got our station," McHenry said.

"It's got everything; it's very modern and has upscale technology," Shaw said. "It looks like

NASA to me. We can display visuals of different parts of the city connected to our radio system, so we can dispatch and deploy resources as needed."

The cleanup effort reinforced the importance of having emergency management clauses in contracts with private companies. The Parks and Recreation Department had a clause in its tree maintenance contract that said during an emergency, the city could request up to 100 extra crews with 72 hours notice. "That was a major success, and we were really lucky we had that in our contract, but now it's become pretty standard in all of our tree maintenance contracts," Decker said.

Shaw agreed that the use of emergency management clauses should be examined for every contract, and agencies should also understand how it will affect billing and FEMA reimbursement. "You need to know what the federal emergency management guidelines are, and ensure you have clauses in those contracts that allow you to activate and switch billing practices or whatever is in line with those federal guidelines to ensure you are reimbursed," Shaw said.

McHenry said if he could redo the clean up, he would've brought in more contractors and kept most of the city workers at everyday tasks so they wouldn't fall too far behind. "We tried to do a lot without disrupting normal service," he said. "We knew we had to clean the city up, but we also didn't want to disrupt picking up trash or getting our parks ready for the spring season or things of that nature."

National Standards
On Feb. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush prompted the creation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) as the framework for all levels of government during an emergency. Kansas City officials said NIMS would've likely changed the city's response to the ice storm had NIMS been available in 2002.

"I think NIMS allowed us to educate our entire staff," Decker said. "Now everybody who works for the city has at least a basic foundation of emergency management."

McHenry said the city has learned from NIMS and is participating in the training; practicing what has been learned and using different scenarios is an integral part of preparation.

According to Shaw, using NIMS will be hard in Kansas City because the city covers 320 square miles and the system focuses on span of control, which is the number of personnel a supervisor is responsible for. "If something were to happen like this again, having the number of employees to meet the span of control could be a problem," he said. "Small incidences, more isolated incidences -- no problem -- but we are talking about 320 square miles of damage in one storm."


Recovery Lessons

It's impossible to be completely prepared for an emergency, but Kansas City officials have some advice for other governments:

  • Stage a dry run to ensure all systems are in place and know who's in charge of what, McHenry said. "Make sure your law department is ready to go if you have to run some legal issues on a contract through them," he added. "Legal, finance and budget people need to be on task as well as field operations. ... Administrative support is important."
  • Decker recommends evaluating storms that have happened in other cities and applying that information to their localities.
  • Also, communicate with contractors to keep informed about available resources during emergencies.

"Be familiar with your FEMA cost codes and understanding every piece of equipment you have," Shaw said. "When you launch and start recording your costs, a lot of your work is already done because it's hard to do that in the heat of the battle."


Elaine Rundle Staff Writer