Kansas City learns from Sandy’s devastation

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Ice storm disaster. A tree weighed down by ice falls on top of a car in Historic Northeast during the 2002 ice storm in Kansas City. Power outages affected 305,000 customers, leaving some residents without power for up to 11 days. File photo

By LESLIE COLLINS
Northeast News
December 5, 2012 

As New Jersey discusses options for rebuilding its devastated shoreline following Hurricane Sandy, Kansas City is trying to learn from their mistakes.

“Any time we have an event of this magnitude, whether it be a hurricane or something that we might not have here in the Midwest, we still want to look at that and see if there are lessons to be learned and things we can grab from their misfortune, so that we can deal with them (disasters) better in the future here,” said Gene Shepherd, emergency manager of Kansas City’s Office of Emergency Management.

Shepherd gave a presentation, “Lessons to be learned from Hurricane Sandy,” during the city’s Nov. 19 Public Safety and Emergency Services Committee meeting.

Approximately 120 people in the U.S. died as a result of Hurricane Sandy and 18 states were affected. Power outages devastated densely populated areas and some residents were left without power for more than two weeks. At the power outage’s peak, more than 8 million customers were left sitting in the dark, he said.

“The utilities say this is the largest power outage in the history of the U.S.,” Shepherd said.

Power outages and flooding crippled New York City’s public transportation system, completely shutting down train stations and subways.

A week after Sandy hit, a nor’easter swept through, blanketing the Northeast with snow and rain and plummeting the temperature to bone chilling degrees.

Lessons learned

One of the problems New Jersey faced was residents who refused to evacuate.

“When there’s an evacuation order, the public needs to take it seriously and follow that request,” Shepherd said. “These (evacuation orders) aren’t done lightly. There’s a lot of thought and consideration that have gone into them.”

People think they can ride out the storm, but then struggle to survive after the storm hits and rely on first responders to help them out, Shepherd said. In turn, that ties up resources.

Shepherd pointed out that in the New York City Borough of Queens, 110 homes burned following Sandy.

After the storm, residents wandered around looking for food and water, and Shepherd questioned why the residents weren’t better prepared since they received ample warning of the hurricane.

Shepherd said residents should keep a 72-hour preparedness kit on hand to support household members and pets. That kit should include food, a gallon of water per person per day, first aid supplies, extra prescription and non-prescription medicine, batteries, flashlights and a radio. During the winter season, residents should also include several sets of warm clothing, he said.

“Another issue that people often don’t think about is cash,” he said.

During the power outages, ATMs and credit and debit card machines at stores were rendered useless. Shepherd said the younger generation carries very little cash and relies heavily on debit and credit cards, even when purchasing a small dollar amount item.

“That’s something to think about when all those assets are down,” he said of setting aside extra cash.

Residents should also keep a full tank of gasoline and plan their trips accordingly to ration gasoline, he said. In New York, residents waited for hours in line at gas stations and were forced to ration gas. Shepherd said the rationing was due to the closing of the port in New York and the inability of the fuel tankers to deliver gasoline to the gas stations. In addition, some gas stations didn’t have backup generators, so customers couldn’t pump gas.

Shepherd said it’s important for cities to have a “good working relationship” with utility companies and said Kansas City has a strong relationship with KCP&L. KCP&L representatives regularly attend the city’s emergency management meetings and have participated in exercises with the city’s Office of Emergency Management. Each year before the storm season arrives, KCP&L and the city attend a seminar to review the process for responding when a major storm hits, he said.

“We’re very fortunate with KCP&L,” Shepherd said.

Committee member Jermaine Reed said more and more people depend solely on cell phones, which presents challenges with power outages.

“There were so many people who were disconnected from the world,” Reed said of those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

When Reed asked if Kansas City would have the capability of providing charging stations for those with cell phones during a disaster, Shepherd said there’s not a plan in place.

“That’s definitely a major concern because we’ve become so dependent (on cell phones). There are very few people who have a wall phone anymore,” Shepherd said.

Over the years in New York City, the number of pay phones had been reduced to a minimum and one woman in her 20s told the media she had never used a pay phone before, he said.

Shepherd said Kansas City would like to partner with the power and utility companies to create a plan.

Disaster plans for Kansas City

Due to staffing issues, Kansas City fell behind on updating mandated plans, Shepherd said. However, Kansas City has now “made great progress,” he said.

Within the past year, the Office of Emergency Management finished the Continuity of Operations Plan for Kansas City, which outlines how the city would continue to operate if a major disaster occurred. Currently, the city is working on the Regional Mass Evacuation Plan and Mass Fatality Plan, which will be finalized in December or January, he said.

Another plan that’s being updated is the Local Emergency Operation Plan, which will be ADA compliant and include “buy-in” from the city departments and other partners.

“Getting that buy-in not only makes it a better plan, but it ensures when we do have an emergency, people will be more familiar with it and won’t be fussing about their roles because they will have bought into it,” said Committee Chair John Sharp.

While Kansas City will never see a hurricane, other natural disasters, like ice storms, have impacted the urban core in the past. During the 2002 ice storm, power outages affected 305,000 customers, leaving some residents without power for up to 11 days, Shepherd said. It took the city three months to clean up the aftermath and cost the city $26 million in damages and cleanup, Shepherd said.

Sharp said during a different ice storm, his home didn’t have power for three days and others, seven days.

“I had limbs up to my waist in my backyard,” Sharp said.

In addition to ice storms, tornados and flooding are also potential threats to Kansas City, Sharp said.

“Really this is something that does have to be on our minds, so that when a disaster does occur – and they will occur – we can be prepared,” Sharp said. “These things are very unfortunate when they occur, but what would be even more unfortunate is if we don’t learn from these experiences.”

 

How to help Kansas City during a disaster: 

Participate in training to become part of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). For more information call (816) 513-8602.

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