• By Lisa Brody

How prepared are we for disasters?


In the last few weeks, Florida and Houston have faced down catastrophic hurricanes, California, Washington and Oregon have battled devastating wildfires, and numerous western states dealt with unprecedented heat for months on end. Meanwhile, those of us in Michigan enjoyed a beautiful summer and an early, crisp fall.

Michiganders are fond of saying that if you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour. We complain about long, bitterly cold winters and boast of the beautiful four seasons. But if we were confronted with a major emergency, whether a natural event or from a manmade occurrence, would our local law enforcement, homeland security, water authorities, hospitals, and municipal leaders be ready and equipped to handle anything thrown at them?

The answer is a mix of both good and bad. Oakland County Homeland Security has extensive emergency plans and hazard mitigation preparations, as do all of our local municipalities. On the converse, if a total catastrophic event occurred and there were massive power outages and cell phone towers were out, the ability to get communications to the public would likely be reduced to the “good neighbor policy” of letting neighbors and friends know what is going on. And that is quite worrisome.

Whether planning for a once-in-a-500-year flood, which is occurring on more frequent basis, an active shooter, or a hacking event to our infrastructure, all management preparations begin with Oakland County Homeland Security, which oversees emergency planning and hazard mitigation for all Oakland County government departments and all municipalities except Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Southfield and Farmington Hills, which have their own emergency operations plan and emergency manager and works directly with the state, as any municipality with a population over 25,000 is permitted. They continue to coordinate with the county and train for many eventualities.

“We’re not first responders – we’re the support system for multiple agencies, such as police departments and fire departments, in emergency management,” said Tom Hardesty, manager, Oakland County Homeland Security. “We act as the liaison with the state and provide services to communities. Communities have to have confidence in our plans and abilities, and that their tax dollars are being used in an efficient and well-thought out manner.”

The county plan, which is mandated by both the federal and state governments to be updated every four years, was last done in 2013. It states, “The goal of hazard mitigation is to eliminate or reduce the loss of life and property from hazards that occur in the county by protecting the health, safety and economic interests of its residents.”

Emergency planning stems from federal legislation passed in 2000, as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), called the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. It is also known as the Disaster Relief – Public Health and Welfare Act, where Congress declared that because “disasters often cause loss of life, human suffering, loss of income, and property loss and damage; and because disasters often disrupt the normal functioning of governments and communities, and adversely affect individuals and families with great severity; special measures, designed to assist the efforts of the affected states in expediting the rendering of aid, assistance and emergency services, and the reconstruction and rehabilitation of devastated areas, are necessary.”

The law revised and broadened the scope of existing disaster relief programs after FEMA was created in 1979; encouraged the development of comprehensive disaster preparedness and assistance plans, programs, capabilities and organizations by states and local government; and encouraged hazard mitigation measures to reduce losses from disasters. First plans had to be completed and submitted in 2005.

Oakland County recently submitted its 2017 version, Hardesty said, to the state and once approved it will go before the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for final approval, allowing them to move forward with that updated plan. The 2013 plan evaluated over 50 potential hazards, based upon historical research, up-to-date information and intelligence reports provided to them, surveys, community workshops and public meetings. Significant hazards it recognized include high winds and tornadoes; hazmat incidents, both from transportation and at fixed sites; ice and sleet; snowstorms, which interfere with traffic and power; infrastructure failures; flooding; public health emergencies; and petroleum and natural gas pipeline accidents.

“There are constant updates (thoughout the four years), but not huge changes,” Hardesty said. The biggest update in the 2017 plan includes dealing with lone wolf rogue drivers, mass shooters, and computer and infrastructure hackers, all emergency situations which have become critical around the world in the last four years.

The county is divided into four zones for preparation of a disaster, and then into state districts, allowing for coordination of police departments, fire and EMS rescue plans, road capacity and direction to and from population centers, hospitals and health care planning. Changes from the 2017 plan have been made based on population changes, preparations and information updates of law enforcement, hospital capacity, and support from federal agencies. “That part is continual – getting grant funding for projects we support. We work a lot with the feds, with FEMA,” Hardesty said. “We get a little each year. The intention of the Trump Administration is to seek a 25 percent grant match for all emergency preparation grants.”

Hardesty said the desire to force local counties to match federal grants could puts them in a tough spot.

“The difficulty of that here is that it’s not just one community – it’s a consortium for law enforcement and training, which doesn’t have the money to match because there’s no funding base,” he said. “Same thing for fire departments – 43 different groups are sharing this equipment. How do you figure out who is paying for what? It will make it so that no one gets any equipment. It will make it so there is a decrease in acquiring equipment and resources for the county.”

Currently, Oakland County Homeland Security is in the midst of grant funding for thwarting terrorist attacks.

The county was recently awarded money for the Integrated Emergency Management Course, which specifically trains first responders for coordinated and complex terrorist attacks. “It means that the federal government will support our sending a group of 70 to Emmitsburg, Maryland, to the Emergency Management Institute for training for four days with a wide ranging group of first responders – law enforcement, fire, hospital workers, EMS, health officials, emergency managers – in training and developing plans. The fifth day is a large exercise to test knowledge and identify gaps.”

The state of Michigan also provides a lot of grant money to the county, as well as acting as a funnel for the federal grant awards.

“FEMA has specific books on tornadoes, floods, hazmat (hazardous materials) terror, severe weather situations, and they prescribe we look at every situation,” said Kevin Schein, Oakland County emergency management coordinator. He said they have specific forms and checklists “for as many things as we can think of to prepare for.”

“Everything is mitigation, preparation, response and recovery,” said Birmingham Fire Chief John Connaughton, who is also the city’s resident emergency manager coordinator. He said Birmingham chose to develop their own emergency plan in order to control actions from the ground, and in order to get funds back from the federal government for emergencies. “At the mitigation part, where you’re trying to mitigate what damage can happen, it’s at the federal, or even the state level, like a hacker getting into the power system. For a large power outage, like in Houston, boots have to go out on the ground. Each member of our emergency operations center has a role and one purpose. The 911 dispatch is responsible for warning the public, for example. If it’s weather related, we can use sirens, cable TV, the city website, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.”

“The municipal websites are really popular, as is the state’s website, and there’s local media. Local municipalities can do their best to get information out, but being a good neighbor and advising your friends and family that a state of emergency has taken place is the most reliable way of communicating in an emergency (if all the power goes out),” said Rochester Hills Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshall Bill Cooke. “The best way may be going outside and telling your neighbor.”

FEMA advises everyone to stock their homes with at least three days worth of water, food, medicine, and pet food, and to have an emergency radio with a three-day supply of batteries available in the case of a catastrophic event and power outage. An emergency radio can access weather radio stations and news radios, which inform the public.

“Ultimately, people are responsible to do the right thing. Like in Houston (and Florida), there’s not enough resources to evacuate everyone by emergency services. The most important thing is to stay calm, listen for information, and don’t panic,” said Birmingham Assistant Fire Chief John Donohue. “We do joint training with Oakland County, and we’re integrated in with other communities in case we’re called to assist one another. There are situations where, in sharing of resources, any one of us could become a public information officer for another.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a veteran of both Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of 9/11, understands the needs for communications in the event of a complete power failure. “We found communications are non-existent. We had to set up portable communications towers, because all power, telephone, and cell towers were down post-9/11 and Katrina,” he said.

While preparations are improved in the last dozen years, there are still holes in the system, he acknowledged, urging people to make preparations, just as the county is constantly improving their systems and coordination.

Hardesty said they coordinate with other counties, routinely meeting and training with other counties as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative in the state. Oakland County, along with Macomb and St. Clair counties, are in Region 2N, part of the Urban Area Security Initiative with Wayne, Washtenaw and Monroe counties and the city of Detroit. “Grants go to the district to benefit the region and support regional intiatives,” he said.

While they prefer not to release evacuation and jurisdictional plans due to security concerns, Hardesty said they have very detailed plans of intersections, including aerial photographs, of who goes where and which department directs what specific part of a plan.

Local municipalities have been given evacuation plans in the event of severe weather or major event, where they could shelter large crowds, Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said. “There are things in the plan, but they’re confidential. But some places, like if there were a tornado or severe thunderstorm, we would evacuate people to Rochester City Hall because it has a lower level, as well as to the lower level of our parking structures because they’re concrete.”

David Hendrickson, Bloomfield Hills City Manager, noted that Cranbrook Education Community, which is within the city’s boundaries, has a collaborative arrangement with the city. “They let us train on their grounds,” he said of the city’s public safety department, which does mock exercises with Bloomfield Township and Troy. In return, “If we had to move a lot of people f rom Cranbrook, we have an agreement with Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills to use Cranbrook busses to take students to the OCC parking lot and have parents pick them up there.”

He said Cranbrook uses a phone app to notify parents in the event of an emergency. If there were a large scale power outage or cell tower outage, his officers have 60 two-way radios that allow them to communicate.

Birmingham would move large groups of the population to its schools, notably the two high schools, city manager Joe Valentine said.

Regionally, Oakland County works with its neighboring districts in the event of major events. “For example, Fermi II in Monroe, we are listed because we’re in the 50-mile emergency planning zone,” Hardesty said. “If there were some kind of radiation issue, we would likely have people shelter in place, and if you had a garden, you’d have to have your garden checked out. People within the the 10-mile radius would need much more detailed plans, preparations, and knowledge of what to do.”

If there were a nuclear detonation in the metro Detroit area, or the release of a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device that combines radioactive materials with conventional explosives, the response would be different – but not revealed now due to the sensitive nature of the plans.

“Our job is to do a lot of ‘what if’s’ – and plan first to prevent, second to respond, and third, to recover from,” Hardesty responded.

Rochester Hills’ Cooke echoed that sentiment. “You can do your best to prevent unfortunate circumstances from happening, but they’re going to happen,” he noted. “The best that you can do is plan for them and prepare.”

Cieslik said, “Just because we’re in Rochester does not mean we’re not necessarily immune from everything. We have plans for civil disturbances and terrorism. We have to prepare for everything. That’s where the group from Homeland Security at Oakland County and Police Chief (Steven) Schettenhelm are a big part, because they keep up with law enforcement. We have to be prepared, whether it’s a civil disturbance, an act of nature, or an active disturbance.

The good news/bad news is, we spend a lot of time planning for a situation and hoping we never have to use. But if we never prepare for a simple disaster, it could easily turn into a massive disaster.”

While Detroit Metropolitan Airport is not directly within Oakland County’s jurisdiction, “it wouldn’t matter,” if something happened at the airport, Detroit or in Macomb County, Hardesty said. “Our response would be the same based on what the circumstance is.”

The Southeast Michigan Council of Goverments (SEMCOG), which aids in the development of the region’s long-range transportation plan, works with a task force of first responders on significant traffic crashes, especially when there may be a hazmat situation causing a fire on a roadway, or a truck hits a bridge on a highway, said Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director, SEMCOG. While they have not yet been involved with terrorist preparation, their next initiative will be dealing with the resiliancy of the region’s transportation system to weather events, notably with flooding after large rain events.

“We haven’t had anything like Houston or Florida, but we do have significant rain events and flooding,” Palombo said. “We’re working with MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) on where the areas are that have the most prevalent issues, and working on what can be done to minimize flooding, on capital and maintenance projects, to lessen the impact.”

Oakland County Sheriff Bouchard is someone who has experienced two of this country’s most catastrophic events, having been called to action at the Twin Towers after 9/11, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“We prepare for all risks and all hazards, not just terrorism, whether it’s a mass casualty or weather events. You examine everything from every aspect,” he said. “As national chairman of Major County Sheriffs of America, we talk about this all of the time, how we can coordinate equipment, communications, planning. We have a better national system than when I was asked to go to Katrina, and certainly on 9/11, but there are better ways to do that.”

Bouchard, who also coordinates with Oakland County Homeland Security and local Oakland County municipalities and police departments, saw first hand what is needed when power grids are down, the water system is compromised, and there is a lack of central communication to the public.

“I learned at Katrina, we brought our own food, gasoline and sleeping equipment,” he said. “We had everything we needed to subsist so we weren’t a drain on already-strained resources. We brought from Alabama a whole tractor trailer with a complete kitchen to cook for ourselves and other first responders.”

He said that not all first responders were as prepared, and it made him realize how critical it is for first responders to come to a disaster ready for anything, having planned for any eventuality, and with their own needs being met, as well as for the public’s.

“We talked (with the federal government) about arranging regional teams pre-equipped and pretrained, so that as an event would unfold, you would just call on the next concentric team,” he said, explaining that mobile hospitals, mobile quarters, shelters, food operations, portable water tanks, mass decontamination units, and other necessary resources would be purchased and equipped and stationed in different parts of the country. “In this way, if an emergency of one kind or another, like Florida, or that region, trained personnel and equipment could be activated. If they were overwhelmed, they could activate the next team with their resources, and so on.

“We met for a year-and-a-half with federal agencies. As often happens with the national government, they move on to the next thing,” Bouchard said. “People changed jobs, administrations changed, and it just was dropped.”

Locally and regionally, weather events remain the highest risk assessment for emergency managers, with the top risk concerns remaining tornadoes, lightning, high winds, snow storms, hail, flooding, and ice and sleet, Birmingham’s Connaughton said. Passenger transport, with its risk of both accidents and potential hazmat situations, is the eighth biggest risk the city faces, he said.

“Snowstorms shut down roads, creates difficulties with transportation and difficulties for emergency responses as well as difficulties for seniors who have to shelter in place who may have issues with food, water and medication,” Connaughton said. “Hail causes damage to automobiles, homes and to people. Flooding, we know the problems. Ice and sleet cause problems with driving and power outages.”

Birmingham is contronted with potential hazards of large cargo both on its main thoroughfare, Woodward Avenue, but also by train, where tracks run along the eastern portion of the city, and by air, with the Oakland/Troy airport on Industrial Row Drive in Troy, just on the other side of Birmingham.

Connaughton and Assistant Chief Donohue said they are not told what cargo is coming through the city – which could, and likely is, hazardous on a daily or weekly basis. “Only if there’s an accident,” Connaughton said.

“There was a huge trainwreck in the late 1990s, where multiple cars derailed, all cargo,” he recalled. “One of the transport cargo cars was automotive, and had pickup trucks which caught fire. One of the cars had chemicals that caught fire. Hazmat responded and took care of that. We’ve had no major hazmat incident in years on any of our major roads.”

“But anytime there’s a vehicle accident, there’s potential for a gasoline spill, which is a hazardous material, but it’s not a classic hazmat incident,” Donohue said, noting they still take hazmat precautions.