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Preparing for the worst: Local emergency responders ponder effects of tornado disaster

Friday, September 17, 2010

Capt. Tom Helmer, left, and Chief Deputy Doug Nally, right, of the Putnam County Sheriff's Department discuss Tuesday's natural disaster tabletop exercise with Greencastle Police Chief Tom Sutherlin. Banner Graphic/JARED JERNAGAN
GREENCASTLE -- It's a scenario few of us can imagine or even want to: tornadoes ravage the county, striking a housing addition in Reelsville, Putnam County Hospital and Fillmore Elementary School.

With roads blocked and many lines of communication clogged or out of service, how would emergency personnel respond to the situation? How would the public react? Where else could we turn for help?

Of course, none of this happened in reality, but on Wednesday afternoon, emergency officials from around the county grappled with the "What if?" of a worst-case scenario.

Valerie Luchauer of the Lawrence County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) managed the tabletop exercise, with additional outside observation from Mike Cornman of the Ellettsville Fire Department.

The following are the "facts" of the scenario to the participants:

* 8:35 a.m.: An F3 tornado touches down in the Apple Blossom area of Reelsville, damaging or destroying many homes. Utility lines are down all over the area. Trees block the main gate entrance off U.S. 40, much of Appleblossom Dr. and the back entrance from CR 800S.

Numerous injuries are reported and four fatalities.

* 8:48 a.m.: Putnam County Hospital is severely damaged by a tornado. The southwest side is partially collapsed, and all windows on the south side are gone. Construction equipment and cars are scattered through the parking lot.

Twenty people are unaccounted for, along with 75 injuries and at least 10 fatalities.

The entrance from U.S. 231 is blocked by debris from the hospital.

* 9:10 a.m.: Fillmore School damaged by a tornado. Buses, cars and trucks are damaged in the parking lot. There are approximately 150 injuries and three fatalities. Teachers and students are panicked.

Debris is blocking the main routes into Fillmore as well as much of Main Street.

With this scenario before them, personnel from agencies including Greencastle Fire Department, Reelsville Fire Department, Putnam County Operation Life, Greencastle Police Department, Putnam County Sheriff's Department, 911 Dispatch, Putnam County Hospital, Putnam County EMA, the coroner's office, the City of Greencastle and the American Red Cross had to react and ponder what would have to be done.

In three sessions over several hours, the agencies planned what they would do. Priorities had to be set and decisions had to be made. Pushed well beyond the limits of their resources, they were forced to discuss where they would seek outside resources and how they would decide what to do first.

The impression that emerged over the course of the day was that although many of the agencies in the county have good relationships with one another, there is still much work that can be done -- there is always much work that can be done.

Questions of how priorities are set and exactly who is in charge are tough ones, and weren't answered entirely by Wednesday's exercise. What did emerge, though, was an awareness of steps to be taken.

"I think the discussion here (Wednesday) has been phenomenal, fantastic," Luchauer said.

One other thought put forward by EMA director Kim Hyten is the need for families, not simply public officials, to be prepared for disasters.

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A great effort... except Hyten exposes his grestest weakness, "failure to communicate" and have all viable players and ready resources at the table. These are things the Commissioners should be evaluating.

-- Posted by Seagullslim on Fri, Sep 17, 2010, at 10:10 AM

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