Coordinated Communications Eases Impact of Midwest Storms

Weather system shows no mercy on residents and strains emergency managers.

by / May 29, 2008
Midwest Misery Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

A severe March weather system displaced residents and exhausted emergency managers, leaving 20 dead and historic flooding in its wake in parts of Arkansas, Missouri and Ohio.

The steady rain hammered an already-saturated Missouri and Arkansas, closed 60 Ohio state roads, then turned to heavy snow in Illinois, forcing the cancellation of more than 450 flights at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.  

The storm dumped more than a foot of rain in parts of Missouri in a 36-hour period, flooding rivers to the point that four crested at record levels between March 17 and March 19.

Severe storms are nothing new to Missourians. Since August 2005, Missouri has received 14 presidential disaster declarations including strong summer storms, massive power outages and serious flooding. Still, this storm opened the eyes of emergency managers.

"I have to admit being somewhat surprised by the scope of this flooding event," said Dante Gliniecki, statewide volunteer coordinator of the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA). "This is one of the biggest flooding disasters in Missouri since the mid-1990s."

The previous disasters and emergencies set the stage for a better, more-cooperative effort this time.

History Lessons
During a recent ice storm, state emergency managers learned the value of a coordinated conference call system for state and local emergency managers, along with the National Weather Service, so that communities most in need are the first to get state resources. The system was established during the December 2006-January 2007 ice storms, when a lack of connectivity between state and local government left thousands of citizens without power for weeks.

During the floods, state, local and federal officials and volunteers were summoned to a conference call, during which every jurisdiction aired its status and needs. Every agency was briefed by the National Weather Service on what to expect; volunteer organizations talked about shelter and food availability; and rescue agencies discussed the availability of rescue personnel like water rescue teams. A "situation report" was posted on SEMA's Web site, which compiled the conference call and subsequent efforts to find resources that were requested, such as generators and drinking water. It proved to be an invaluable way to communicate.

Another lesson learned from previous floods was the establishment of a Multi-Agency Coordination Center in southeast Missouri to help manage swift water rescue requests. Though evacuation is voluntary in Missouri, hundreds were forced to leave their homes during the March floods, and police and other rescuers were busy aiding stranded residents.

"The continuous rains saturated the ground and created additional flash flooding and rising backwaters, so many residents who normally would not evacuate found themselves in conditions where evacuation was necessary," said Susie Stonner, SEMA's public information officer. "More than 100 state employees and fire personnel with swift water rescue training responded in St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Scott and Butler counties."

The devastation could have been much worse if not for Missouri's long-standing effort to move citizens out of harm's way.

After severe flooding during 1993, '94 and '95, Missouri began an aggressive buyout program, offering mitigation funds to remove families from floodplains. Since then, more than 5,000 homes have been purchased by local communities, which turn the land into open space, parks or low-maintenance recreational facilities.

"If the earlier buyout program had not been implemented, many more Missourians would have suffered from floods," Stonner said via e-mail. Gliniecki said the state hopes to increase the number of buyouts in the near future to prevent more flooded residences.

In another effort to improve the way Missourians respond to disasters, Gov. Matt Blunt launched a faith-based initiative in April 2008 for mass care and disaster outreach. The initiative provides coordination of nongovernmental, volunteer and faith-based organizations. These organizations will attend regional training sessions on how to set up and run a shelter in accordance

with American Red Cross standards.

Arkansas Lacking Resources
Arkansas was also struck by heavy weather, which left emergency managers struggling to pay for cleanup and some officials contemplating whether housing should be limited in flood-prone areas. Heavy, consistent rains and floods followed the Feb. 5, 2008, tornadoes that had emergency managers scrambling through mid-April and prompted President George W. Bush to declare 35 counties in Arkansas federal disaster areas.

"It's been front, after front, after front," said David Maxwell, Arkansas Department of Emergency Management director. "I have folks who have not been in the office since shortly after the Feb. 5 tornadoes."

Maxwell is short of help and trying to keep track of various declarations, which have been taxing: keeping staff coordinated, accompanying FEMA representatives to assess damage, and continuing to monitor rising waterways.

Being able to enlist out-of-state assistance would be helpful during emergencies, which is why the Emergency Management Assistant Compact (EMAC) was created. EMAC is a congressionally ratified organization that provides interstate mutual aid when requested.

But Maxwell would need to pay for an EMAC team if he requested one because of a new FEMA policy, and he can't afford it, he said.

The new FEMA Disaster Assistance Policy 9525.9 (Section 324 Management Costs and Direct Administrative Costs) went into effect March 12, 2008, and says that management costs reimbursed by FEMA won't exceed 3.34 percent. The state had already totaled management costs of about $16 million in mid-April and wouldn't be eligible for FEMA reimbursement for an EMAC under the new policy.

"It's going to mean that states that are unable to bear the full cost of EMAC response would not be able to use EMAC," Maxwell said. "It will have the effect of damaging mutual aid in this country."

Arkansas, like Missouri, is accustomed to this kind of havoc, and experts say to expect more of the same. "It is well documented that more and more people want to live near water," said Frank Richards, meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Hydrologic Services Program. "The resulting migration, along with increasing values of infrastructure like plumbing, heating and communications systems, increases the impact of flooding even if there is no enhancement due to El Niño/La Niña or global warming."

"In my opinion, while emphasis on addressing possible anthropogenic impacts on global climate change is prudent, in reality, our ability to control climate is considerably less than our ability to manage growth and development in weather-sensitive areas," said Richards.