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Oakland emergency preparations lacking

As we examined in depth in this month’s issue Oakland County and local municipalities’ emergency preparations and hazard mitigation for any kind of serious crisis or catastrophic event, natural or manmade, what we came away with was the realization that they’re not ready for prime time.

Frankly, 16 years after the 9/11 terrorist attack, and 12 years after the horror in New Orleans of Katrina, we are not only disappointed in their short-sighted approach, but worried. Just weeks after the massive natural catastrophes that Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma were for the southern portions of this country, it exposed holes in disaster preparation that are transferrable to southeastern Michigan.

Every local municipality with an emergency management plan focused primarily on natural disasters – important certainly, but here in Michigan, we are not convinced that winter elements of snow and snowstorms, often considered a top hazard, should be considered a natural disaster rather than winter weather. Yes, ice storms cause all kinds of major issues, including power outages, which require emergency preparations. However, both the county and locals remain less than ready for how to handle massive power outages when they do occur, whether from weather-related events or from a terrorist event, war or any other catastrophe. Last March’s power outage due to strong winds was a prime example, as it took over a week to restore much of the 277,000 people who were left without power.

One of the most significant issues that appears incomplete in plan after plan is how they would handle communications in the event of a catastrophic event that result in massive power outages and cell phone towers down, with residents incapable of just “turning on the TV to find out where to go.” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard has seen 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, having been called to action at the Twin Towers after 9/11, and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said that not all first responders were 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. He had worked with the feds to create concentric circles of prepared regional teams that were pre-trained and pre-equipped for any kind of disaster, with the right kind of communication devices and skills. Unfortunately, changes in administrations and priorities derailed the efforts.

The answer from emergency managers was often for residents to have emergency radios with batteries, or that they would have to talk to their neighbors. That’s not the the kind of regional cooperation that is required for communications and it seems highly inadequate if there were a major event – which all anyone has to currently do is read a headline to know that preparing for an event greater than flooding should be their highest priority.

President Trump spoke to the United Nations General Assembly, threatening “total destruction” of North Korea if it doesn’t abandon its drive toward nuclear weaponry. North Korea continues to threaten to hit the middle of the United States with a missile while testing out its weapons. China and Russia are conducting joint war exercises. Disaffected men around the world, whether they have been radicalized as terrorists or are mentally ill, are acting as “lone wolves” in reeking havoc on the public.

If only flooding, ice and snowstorms were really what emergency preparations were all about, Oakland County would be mostly prepared.

The reality is that today, we are dealing with a president who could engage in a war with North Korea or Iran, or any number of countries, at any point, and citizenry could be confronted with dangers much greater than clearing snow off roadways. We have to look elsewhere for good examples of emergency preparedness. For example, in Israel, every school child knows where to head in case of war or bombings. Or look to North Korea, where a reporter recently interviewed citizens who said they were preparing for war with the United States, and everyone knew where to go if that happened.

When we asked officials about evacuation routes and shelters in case of a major catastrophe, the answers were either ‘confidential’ or non-existent. That is not preparation in the event of a major calamity. Oakland County, you must do better, for all of our sakes.

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