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Real emergencies steal thunder from disaster drill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2011 - Have you ever woken up with a hangover only to face another big bash that evening? Then you understand why many of Missouri's disaster responders are almost too pooped to play in this week's national level emergency drill.

Tornadoes tearing through Bridgeton and other neighborhoods and the airport last month, and flooding in the Bootheel have tested the limits of many emergency workers this spring. Still, 98 of Missouri's 115 counties are participating at some level in a five-day national exercise simulating a catastrophic 7.7 magnitude earthquake along the New Madrid Fault's southwest region. The event was planned as an eight-state drill, but Alabama and Mississippi dropped out leaving six states: Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The 2011 event is the first federally mandated annual drill on a natural disaster and the largest functional exercise of its kind in two decades. It coincides with the 200-year anniversary of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake. But it also overlaps with ongoing cleanup efforts in southern Missouri and St. Louis County.

Until the last minute, the number of participating Missouri counties was a moving target. Real events are tying up both local responders and state emergency personnel. A case in point, according to state emergency management official Tim Diemler, is the Weldon Springs flood that closed the Black Locust Group Camp and Beaver Dam Trail.

"We would have activated a state area coordination center in Weldon Springs, but because of the real world considerations, which have to come first, that won't take place," Diemler told the Beacon last week.

Reflecting on the irony of so many actual disasters occurring during the drill timetable, Diemler cracked wise.

"When it rains, it pours," he said.

Limited Test Of Limits Of Preparedness

The national-level exercise is designed to test emergency response coordination among federal, state and local responders. Public emergency warning, communications among responders, sheltering, evacuation and medical surge will all be evaluated. State and local participation is voluntary, but no federal funds are available to help defray the cost of the drill.

The St. Louis County emergency office cited not only recent disasters but also "quite a few other exercises and activities" as a reason for its limited participation in the national drill. Their small-staff involvement will consist of injecting some mock complications, such as a bridge collapse into the state's activities, according to the office's director Mike Smiley.

"We promised the state we would provide some support to them, so we are simulating an activation of our emergency operations center," Smiley said. "Basically, it's a couple of staff members picking up the phone and calling the state with an inject."

St. Louis will have a close-to-full emergency operations center from Tuesday through Friday, according to the city's emergency management commissioner Gary Christman.

The biggest state participation is in Jefferson City, where Missouri's emergency operations center will be up and running 12 hours a day throughout the drill. In Springfield, a local hospital will simulate the evacuation of patients via helicopter.

No local hospitals are participating to that degree. St. Anthony's Medical Center will evaluate its HAM radio communications with the state. Barnes-Jewish Hospital is testing a software program that orders supplies and medicines, according to Jerry Glotzer, the hospital's director of environmental health and safety.

"We're doing very specific things but not participating at the full level," Glotzer said.

This week's event is one of an annual, federal succession of drills that used to be called TopOff exercises. Seattle, a national leader in emergency preparedness, spent a year and a half preparing for its 2003 TopOff involving a radioactive bomb.

Seattle, however, was given $2.5 million by the federal government, which left that city with only minimal expenses of its own to cover.

Still, it's important for state and local governments to take advantage of this federal opportunity at whatever level they can, according to Josh Duberge, a federal emergency management spokesperson.

"It's one of the few times that all levels of government have the ability to play together in an exercise so they can figure how they would interact with each other in the event of a real emergency," Duberge said. "Usually that opportunity --- with everyone involved --- doesn't present itself until a disaster occurs."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.