A Date with Disaster
by kathryn schiliro | photo illustration & infographics by katie walker
On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, disaster will strike Morgan County. On that date, a truck bearing radioactive transuranic waste (TRU) from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., will be involved in an accident while traveling along Interstate 20. The accident will take place, specifically, at the Stanton Springs development at the intersection of I-20 and Georgia Highway 278. The good news? This situation will be hypothetical. It will only be a drill. Part of the Georgia Regional Healthcare Community Emergency Preparedness Exercise Program, this exercise will “simulate an accident with the transporter” taking TRU waste from Aiken to Carlsbad, NM, according to Walton County Emergency Management Director Donnie McCullough, who’s helping to orchestrate the exercise. “This trains first responders on how to deal with WIPP (the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) [material]...and treat the injured,” McCullough said. In fact, TRU waste from the Savannah River Site is shipped to Carlsbad, NM – where it’s deposited underground at the WIPP – through Morgan County via I-20 on a regular basis, Morgan County Emergency Management Director Gwen Ruark said. According to the Savannah River Site Web site, 115 shipments bearing more than 490 cubic meters of TRU waste was shipped to the WIPP in New Mexico in fiscal year 2009. It’s customary, Ruark said, that she receive messages sometimes two or three times a day warning her that the shipment is approaching Morgan County or letting her know it’s made its way out of the state. April’s exercise will bring together local and regional agencies as well as state and national agencies, such as the Department of Energy, Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Division, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) as well as contractors, McCullough said. A precursor to April’s event, local agencies – including representatives from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, Morgan County Emergency Management, Morgan Memorial Hospital and Madison Health and Rehab – joined together for a tabletop exercise, sponsored by the University of Georgia College of Public Health, at the Oconee Civic Center last Friday morning. There were about 10 groups in the room like the Morgan County one, coming from different counties and communities, but all with the same goal: to hash out their strengths and weakness, to find any holes in prescribed plans – particularly in how these organizations related to each other – and to learn where they stood should disaster strike. “Disaster preparation is a community effort,” David Seagraves, CEO of Hart Medical Center told the crowd. “You don’t need to meet them (community partners) for the first time (in a disaster).” (Seagraves is a former CEO of Sumter Regional Medical Center, which was decimated by a 2007 tornado. He spoke on FEMA and GEMA reimbursements.) In speaking with each other, the various Morgan County agencies present found their strengths and weaknesses. The county, for example, has emergency preparedness plans on the books; however, as Sheriff Robert Markley said when presenting to the rest of the conference when it came time, “The plans are in the books, we don’t drill them.” He admitted that it was difficult to staff positions and perform drills at the same time. Communication in and among agencies and to the public has improved dramatically with the installation of the county-wide CodeRED system. The previous notification system took a day and a half to notify every county resident of an emergency; CodeRED can do the same thing in 15 minutes. This system also has branches for individual government agencies that permits them to do limited notifications to their employees, for example. It was suggested that Morgan Memorial ask to have a branch of CodeRED set up for them so that hospital employees could be notified more efficiently should disaster occur, as they’re currently phone calling employees. Familiarity with FEMA and GEMA procedures isn’t a concern, the group found. After what the county endured with damage from storms earlier this year, it seems county administration is familiar with the process of documenting and applying for reimbursement from these agencies. Ruark explained that she’d been proactive about setting up shelters, should the need arise. Markley, in speaking to the large group, also said that among their strengths were the facts that they all work well together and that the county’s infrastructure was in place. Representatives of Madison Health and Rehab expressed feeling that a more concrete emergency preparedness plan should be fleshed out with Morgan Memorial. These representatives were also encouraged to contact the school system and county transit to get transportation plans on the books in case of disaster, to come up with plans for credentialing volunteer doctors and nurses and to establish a plan to keep families together should differing medical needs arise. Another item the group found to work on: having working knowledge written down and not kept by an a single individual. Bad things can, and sometimes do, happen, but with preparation and planning, results can be mitigated. Markley explained being of the “mindset it just isn’t going to happen in Morgan County.“ “Until the tornado.”
In May, a F-2 tornado ripped across the county, causing more than $6 million in structural damage.
Printed in the November 10, 2011 edition