*An Emergency Response Plan Comes Together*
By: Gottin_Himmel
31 August 2019

I Love it When an Emergency Response Plan Comes Together.

Recently, the big story in weather news was a monster heat wave that was going to settle in over the northeastern United States. The volunteer fire departments in my area were all set to open their doors as cooling centers in case of a widespread power outage.

Ma Nature had something else in mind—a line of strong thunderstorms blowing in from the Midwest. The National Weather Service issued flash flood watches across the western portion of my state. I kept an eye on the radar throughout the day, but nothing much was happening.

At about 10 o'clock that evening, my NOAA weather radio began blaring its fool head off as it issued a flash flood warning for areas to my north. I scanned my mental map of the affected area and believed we might have some flooding along the creek that runs through town.

We later found out that the system dumped four inches of rain on the headwaters of smaller streams. By comparison, when I finally had the chance to check my own rain gauge at home, my neighborhood had received 1.5 inches.

The first reports of road closures and residential flooding started coming in at 10:22, but from the wrong direction. Instead of the creek going over its banks, the small streams winding through the countryside were becoming increasingly dangerous. Even so, I checked my maps and saw nothing to threaten my town. Deciding that Saturday morning might be a tad interesting, I lay down for a few hours' sleep.

At a few minutes until midnight, the fire sirens in town woke me from an uneasy doze. If it blows for a few minutes, there has probably been a house fire or an auto accident. When it blares steadily for any length of time, you can bet that something wicked this way comes.

I turned on my scanner and logged into Facebook to see the latest reports from the surrounding fire departments. There were multiple road closures in a couple of the surrounding townships. And then I picked out the words "water rescue" in town before the fire chief was swamped again by radio traffic. The chief was calmly summoning water-rescue craft and crews to the party.

By talking to a fellow news reporter on Facebook, we pieced together what was evolving around us. People were being told to stay off the roads, but I thought I could chance it. I only live about a half mile from where people were being rescued from a residential street. In a worst-case scenario, I could simply walk a mile in the rain and dark to reach the scene.

Fortunately, I could sort of drive to the vicinity of the flooding. As it turned out, an overflowing street cut through the local rail-trail to a depth of 15 feet, which would have made things extremely interesting if I had gone that way.

The stream causing the majority of the problems is normally a pretty thing, eight feet wide, a good place for grazing cows to have a sip of cool water. That night, it was a different watercourse in an ugly mood.

The worst area in town was in the area of an elementary school, which ended up with three feet of water throughout. Its Dumpster was found a quarter mile away wedged into a window at a local truck repair shop. Neighbors were lined up along the street, talking in front yards as they debated whether to evacuate or not.

As I picked out a likely spot to start taking photos, a hovercraft chugged up the middle of the street. Actually, that was kind of brilliant. The water was deep enough to flood basements and first stories, but not deep enough for a traditional outboard motor to be used. A nearby department's large pumper truck eased through the current, the water above its hubcaps.

An EMT took a moment to catch his breath near me, and I asked him what he'd seen so far.

"The water came up so fast in the ambulance garage that we had to start carrying bandages and drugs to the second floor. I never saw a stream come up so fast."

It was a sentiment voiced by a lot of people that night, folks who have lived through more floods than they care to talk about. Even the area's fire departments used to think they'd seen it all.

There were stories of people being rescued from atop their kitchen counters. Emergency crews were going door to door, telling people to get out. My favorite convenience store was the site of a few people being rescued from the tops of their cars after having only stopped to buy some gas and a lottery ticket or two. A huge uprooted tree knocked over one of the gas pumps in the meantime.

Next door, a wheel alignment shop was put out of business within 20 minutes after floodwaters ruined all their equipment and debris dented four large overhead doors.

The stories are endless and will continue to flow in for weeks to come. But there was one major factor that kept the situation from being worse.

I live across a creek in a different county from the flooding, but I have dealt with its emergency management folks for a number of years. I attended an informational session about their emergency response plan about eight years ago. It's one of those things you pray is never needed, but you're really glad that it is there all the same.

I think it's standard practice for counties to have some kind of response plan on file. The one across the creek was pretty impressive because of its comprehensiveness. A huge amount of emergency and commercial equipment was meticulously logged according to type, location and available operators.

This was the key to the stellar response the other night. The fire chief talked to the county dispatcher and told her what he needed and from where. He sounded amazingly calm on the scanner as he made his requests.

The plan simply worked, not only during the flood but also during the initial clean-up effort. The water started receding for the most part by 2:30 a.m. When I went back out the next morning, all the major roads had been cleared of debris in my immediate area (they're still working on some of the side roads out in the country). Utility crews were out working before dawn to restore power. Most of the businesses are open except for an unfortunate few with major damage from debris.

The emergency response plan simply worked. Was it perfect? Probably not.

But you know how those old sayings go: Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Any plan is better than no plan at all.


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