A Well-Managed Disaster: County's Emergency Manager Earns State Award

He was recently named Emergency Management Professional of the Year by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division.

by Alyssa Sobotka, The Daily Globe, Worthington, Minn. / February 21, 2019
AP

(TNS) - Cottonwood County Emergency Management Director Paul Johnson had one crazy summer.

That might be oversimplifying the amount of hours he dedicated to not one, but two, natural disaster events within a month’s time to hit Cottonwood County and the Windom area.

Johnson’s efforts to lead the area through a near record-breaking flooding event didn’t go unnoticed. He was recently named Emergency Management Professional of the Year by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management division. He was presented the award during last week’s 54th annual Governor’s HSEM Conference in Minneapolis.

Johnson said he’d always hoped to earn the award during his tenure as the county’s emergency manager, but certainly couldn’t have guessed it would come within his first four years on the job.

“Winning it now is a little surreal,” he said, adding that learning of the award gave him goosebumps. “There was a lot of disasters in the state this year, and a lot of emergency managers put in a lot of time helping people out.”

While Johnson was nominated for and selected to receive the high honor, he’s quick to point to the efforts of other community leaders and members and an incident response team that he said came together and “did what needed to be done.”

And, there was plenty to do in response to a mid-June torrential rainfall event that caused damage to roadways and other infrastructure throughout the county. The area received another blow in early July, as a second downpour occurred upstream and threatened to swell the Des Moines River that runs straight through Windom even more. The river crested at around 23.4 feet, which was second to the flooding event of 1969.

Throughout the events, Johnson tapped into his previous dispatcher experience, when he worked dually as a corrections agent and dispatcher for the county. He delegated an incident management team and coordinated a constant flow of information to the office’s Facebook page, local media and to city and county leaders. He opened the emergency operations center for decision-makers to meet and map out what needed to be done.

Johnson also put out a call for volunteers to fill sandbags and delegated where they needed to be placed. He said that day was a hot one out at the Cottonwood County Fairgrounds, and area businesses stepped up to donate food and water.

He also stressed the importance to each governmental body and homeowners to record damages.

“So when FEMA showed up, I could say this is what happened — here’s what it’s costing us,” he said.

Johnson is grateful for the support he received throughout his first disaster response experience, including experienced emergency managers and his wife, Rachael, who he said helped record volunteer hours during what was supposed to be their date weekend.

Looking back, Johnson said the area’s response to the summer flooding events went as smoothly as it could have. It was helpful, he added, that he was familiar with county employees and had served on the Windom City Council.

“Having a good working relationship with everybody helped,” he said, giving further credit to the team effort.

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