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.
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