By David Green
s rock-and-roll radio stations used to loudly proclaim, “And the hits just keep on comin’!”
The hits, in this case, are hard knocks from Mother Nature, who has bombarded the nation, the region and Marshall County in particular with a variety of extraordinary events over the past several years.
A harbinger of things to come was the tornado, rated at F3 on the Fujita-Pearson scale (winds of 158-206 mph), that swept through the county on a northeasterly course, leaving hundreds of destroyed homes and other structures and one fatality in its wake, in November 2005.
Tornadoes are nothing unusual for this part of the country, but three years later, a most unusual event occurred when Hurricane Ike made it all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to the Jackson Purchase region with devastating winds and heavy rain in August 2008.
It has been relentless since then – the history-making ice storm of January 2009, flooding in May of that same year, even worse flooding a year later in May of 2010, and severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and another flood of historic proportions in 2011.
It was a disaster of a much different nature, but a disaster just the same, when extended drought and extensive heat ravaged the county during the past summer, devastating the agriculture industry.
Attempting to find a silver lining for all those dark clouds, Melissa Combs, director of Marshall County Emergency Management, admits that at least she has gotten a variety of experience in her five years on the job.
“We have had a little bit of practice,” she said with a wry smile.
She had just been named to the director’s position in May 2008, just a few months before Ike rumbled into the region, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damages.
“A lot of downed trees, a lot of people without power for a good while,” she said. “For a brand new director, that’s a bit overwhelming.”
It was just the beginning. In a four-year span, there were five declared disasters for local and regional emergency responders to handle.
In addition, there have been a number of other incidents in addition to the natural disasters and the undeclared emergencies, including plane crashes, the drowning of three teens in a Kentucky Lake boating accident and the collapse of a span of the Eggners Ferry Bridge after it was struck by a ship.
Combs notes that agencies and personnel have not merely endured those catastrophic events and done their duty, but have also learned from the experiences. Some practices and procedures have been battle-tested and proven, and some imperfections in other areas have been addressed and improved.
The tornado of 2005, Combs said, led to the establishment of VOAB, Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters. While local agencies for the most part handled response to the tornado, there was assistance from McCracken County and close interaction with a local church, Mt. Carmel Methodist on Big Bear Highway.
“A beautiful partnership came out of that,” Combs said. “Mt. Carmel opened their church for us and allowed us to run an operations center out of there. The Red Cross was operated out of there and East Marshall as well. That was the beginning of our VOAB.”
In January 2009, responders were on the water for 17 days searching for bodies of three teen-aged duck hunters who drowned when their boat capsized in frigid waters. A fourth teen survived.
“That was the biggest search and recovery effort in the history of our squad, and for Kentucky Lake and this area, as far as we know,” Combs said.
She said there were between 100 and 200 responders every day, agencies from Kentucky and from Illinois, Tennessee and Indiana. Out of the tragedy came valuable lessons about coordination of efforts, regional partnerships and technology. The recovery was final completed with the use of a side-scan sonar device brought in by volunteers from Illinois.
Since then, Marshall County has obtained its own version of that technology, thanks finally to financial underwriten by Walmart and Woodmen of the World.
Team efforts help distribute the burden and increase the effectiveness of emergency responders.
However, sometimes outside help just isn’t available – such as in the ice storm, Combs said, when the entire region was affected.
“We were isolated and we had to manage that on our own,” Combs said, until assistance from beyond the region, outside the effects of the ice storm, could arrive on-scene and help with major projects such as electric power restoration.
Among the policies, practices and procedures that proved themselves, Combs singled out communications help from amateur radio operators, interagency relationships and what she called “our continual ability to adapt and overcome.”
There has been evolution of the process as well.
The Emergency Responders Alliance, formed in the 1980s, has expanded beyond its original makeup of county fire department chiefs to include rescue, ambulance service, law enforcement, amateur radio operators, the Red Cross and public health agencies.
“We know it takes all of us to get us put back together,” Combs said. “Joint training has made us more comfortable with each other. Jurisdictional and turf stuff kind of fades away and we’re a lot more unified.”
Combs also noted that the amateur radio network works best because it is basic equipment, less dependent on the infrastructure than more modern, high-tech communications.
Preparing for the next emergency is a constant mission.
“Every one of those disasters has brought something new, something unique to its own little environment,” Combs said. “We revamp the plans and re-do the procedures and bring on board a few new tools if we can. Who knows what that next event’s gonna hold for us?”
The worst-case scenario, of course, would be a major earthquake. The region has had a number of minor shocks over the past two centuries but was rocked by one of the worst earthquakes in history in the winter of 1811-1812, centered in New Madrid, Mo.
“At the state level, we’re being heavily hit with planning for the catastrophic earthquake,” Combs said. “We know that’s the one thing we haven’t seen.”
The planning is based on a quake of 7.2 on the Richter scale, which roughly matches estimates of the severity of the series of quakes from December 1811 through February 1812. Combs said planning is based on the intention of each state taking care of its own needs in such a regional event.
“We want to be able as a Commonwealth to really take care of the Commonwealth,” she said, by utilizing partnerships – “public and private, volunteer, church-based, faith-based, whatever.
“If western Kentucky is devastated as we believe it will be in a catastrophic New Madrid event, no one will be hearing from us. We’re not going to be requesting stuff, because we can’t. We’re going to be digging ourselves out from underneath these buildings.
“How do they at the state level plan to respond to that? They’re looking at identifying resources in central Kentucky and eastern Kentucky, and how do they fold those over on top of us to accomplish what we need to accomplish to get everybody put back together?”
Turning the scenario around, there are also provisions for local and regional agencies and individuals to respond to calls for help from other areas. Earlier this year, responders from Marshall County traveled to eastern Kentucky after a rash of tornadoes ravaged a part of the state that hardly ever sees such occurrences.
More recently, local personnel journeyed to the northeastern U.S. to assist with recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy struck.
“The state itself has what is called a mutual aid agreement,” Combs said. “Our jurisdictions have all signed off and agreed to participate in that. If we are able, we will assist to the point that we will not sacrifice our own needs.”
Response is based on an evaluation of the local capabilities. Combs summed it up in three questions: Can we do this? How much of a risk are we putting our own community to? How many people can we send? How many can we leave here to cover us?
It’s based on the expectation of reciprocal aid, she said.
“We’ll come help you, you come help us” is the only practical plan, Combs said. “None of us can do this on our own and someday we may be in their shoes. If we can assist them without putting our own in jeopardy, it’s our duty and also in our interest.”