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Food, shelter, medicine: Basics are paramount in quake emergency

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2011 - Bread, milk and ice are often the first items people think about when faced with a power outage. But what happens with those commodities when an earthquake cuts power citywide?

Emergency planners who've studied previous disasters have learned that darkened grocery stores are targets for looters. But instead of using a police presence to keep people out, St. Louis is leaning toward having the gendarmes escort people in and out of stores in an orderly fashion.

That was the consensus Tuesday during a tabletop emergency drill at the St. Louis emergency operations center as part of this week's federal earthquake exercise.

"Grocery stores are big caches of food. They can be used as a resource to feed the people," said Mike Arras, St. Louis' deputy fire chief.

Establishing Control In The Chaos

Opening grocery stores to the people was just one out-of-the-box idea to come from a St. Louis tabletop exercise Tuesday, an event coordinated with a weeklong national disaster drill.

According to the drill script, a 7.7 earthquake hits along the New Madrid Fault in Arkansas on May 16. The biggest impact is in south St. Louis, with south St. Louis County affected as well. In the city, all power is out, all bridges over water are inaccessible, cell phones are jammed and communication is primarily limited to HAM radios, a handful of satellite telephones and the city's 800 mHz radio communications system.

During their three-hour meeting, city officials brainstormed about search and rescue and communications, but a lot of the discussion came down to food, medicine, other supplies and shelter.

One simple way to shelter thousands of people is to think about what's happening at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, the set time of the earthquake, according to director of public safety Charles Bryson. At that moment, some 30,000 children would be in school.

"People will drive, walk or crawl to get to their children," Bryson said.

His idea is to keep the children in the schools that have been cleared as structurally safe, and encourage the parents who show up to stay there with them. Schools have kitchens and some food on hand; more food and supplies can be brought in. Plus, it would cut down on the search and rescue.

"The more you can account for where people are, the less you have to look for them," Bryson said.

Are The Shelters Safe?

While many kids would be in school, many parents may be at work, often in high-rise buildings. Having no power would leave countless people trapped in elevators. Qualified experts would have to enter those buildings and get the stranded people -- and themselves -- out safely, according to Gary Christman, the city's emergency management commissioner.

"That is a huge manpower task, considering every building has an elevator in it and theoretically at 10 a.m. every one would have people in it," Christman said. "Then, you're going to have some people who need to walk down from the 60th floor of the Metropolitan Building, which is particularly hard if they have a disability."

Numerous engineers will also be needed to determine if buildings are safe.

"Even if we say, 'Yes, this shelter is fine,' and we put people in there, we could have a heavy aftershock. We may have to have someone do another assessment," Christman said.

Depending on safety, other possible shelters include the Edward Jones Dome, the Chaifetz Arena and the Carondelet Park Rec Complex YMCA, which was built under updated building codes and is therefore more likely to resist earthquake damage. Hotels might also be a source of shelter.

If there's little-to-no communications, city workers not directly involved in rescue efforts could be used to run from location to location passing on information such as which buildings are safe. Police might have to use megaphones to deliver messages to the public about shelter, supplies and curfew times.

Even if cell phone networks are jammed, they can likely still be used to communicate in the new-fashioned way: texting. Text messages have proven to get through in previous emergencies even when calls can't be made or received. Valerie Russell, with the city's Department of Human Services, knows that from personal experience.

"I had a child in Tuscaloosa, Ala. during the tornado," Russell said. "She couldn't call, but she could text. That's how we found her, and we could talk with her that way for four days."

Managing Limited Supplies

Those who can't get to grocery stores may be able to venture out to distribution points where the Red Cross would hand out meals. But human behavior has to be factored into that effort. During the 2006 ice storm, officials learned that if distribution points have large quantities of food on hand, the food runs out more quickly.

"If you give them too much, instead of giving out one or two meals a person, somebody may ask for tomorrow's meals and before you know it, they're all out. If you trickle it down, it lasts longer," Christman said.

People have to be managed and overseen when it comes to other supplies. Pharmacies and big-box stores could be opened to the public, with the understanding that the food, medicine and merchandise costs would be reimbursed by federal authorities. But the public must be supervised inside all these locations.

"You can't leave them to their own devices," Arras said. "One guy may come in and say, 'I want this generator,' and another guy says, 'It's mine.' Then, you're going to have injuries and even fatalities."

Lessons Learned

One noticeable absence in the emergency operations center involved public health officials. Christman explained that they were monitoring the emergency online. Their input will be gathered before the week's end, but it was missing from the real-time discussion on Tuesday.

Michael Thomas of Saint Louis University's Heartland Centers for Public Health in SLU's School of Public Health was on hand to observe the meeting. His observations will assist Christman and his office as they sift through a tremendous amount of information in the weeks ahead.

Lessons learned from the drill will be valuable not only in the less-likely event of an earthquake, but also in any number of other disasters.

"If you look at what happened in Alabama and the tornadoes, a lot of the search and rescue and other management would also be used in an earthquake," Christman said.

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.