Thursday, March 27, 2008

Preparing for disaster

Preparing for disaster

NEW YORK -- A new computer modeling program can help government, law enforcement, and first responders figure out how to react to disasters and best help people affected by catastrophes.

Planning with Large Agency-Networks against Catastrophes, or Plan-C for short, is a program developed at New York University's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response. The program allows disaster relief agencies to simulate a catastrophic event like a hurricane or terrorist attack. But unlike other modeling software that runs similar simulations, this one also tries to predict how citizens will react, based on a whole slew of factors including their level of fear and how much they know about what's going on.

“The way you should approach disasters, that there are an infinite number of [factors] - the weather's good, the weather's bad, the people are all elderly, it's a festival of children or whatever it is,” said Lewis Goldfrank, NYU’s Chairman of Emergency Medicine.

Most crisis scenarios are pretty rare, but where local, state, and federal officials value this new software for helping them prepare for the most unexpected of the unexpected situations.

"And you've got to understand that the world has so many vulnerable people and so many special populations, that you've got to design your work to address all the critical issues," continued Goldfrank.

“We don't see hurricanes of category 4 in New York City, but if we had one we'd want to know the impact would be,” said Commissioner Joseph Bruno of the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

“That's really a pretty basic model - what kind of housing we have, how many people in the zones, what we can expect, how many we move out. Plan C gives us kind of a more sophisticated view of that impact,” continued Bruno.

Plan C has been in development for three years, and NYU now plans to get input about the program from local, state, and federal officials, in order to better tailor it to their particular needs.

March 26, 2008
Preparing for disasters

Convoy of Hope program helps groups respond.

Linda Leicht

In the Springfield area alone, there have been at least six weather disasters in less than two years -- including ice storms, tornados and flooding.

Rob Clay, associate director of Convoy of Hope's U.S. Disaster Response, said Tuesday such disasters have heightened the need for preparation and response, especially on the part of the faith community.

"How can your church minister to the community in times of emergency?" Clay asked about 200 people gathered Tuesday, representing churches and other faith-based organizations from around the Ozarks.

He answered that churches -- like every organization -- must engage their members in personal preparation so they can then turn to community outreach.

Tuesday was the first gathering of HOPE (Helping Others Prepare for Emergencies) Begins Here, a new project of Convoy of Hope, a faith-based organization that responds to disasters around the world.

The program is delivered in three phases -- the first to the faith-based community, then to businesses and other organizations April 23, and then a preparedness festival for families May 3. It is meant to help organizations learn how to respond to emergencies of all types, for their members and communities.

Springfield, Convoy's home base, is the first community to host the series. Convoy plans to take it around the country.

Ice Storm

The ice storm of January 2007 became a learning opportunity for many churches in the area.

The American Red Cross turned to churches to serve as shelters for the hundreds of people who were left without heat or power, some for more than two weeks.

Debi Meeds, executive director of the Greater Ozarks Chapter of the Red Cross, said the lessons learned in those weeks have helped churches and the Red Cross recognize their interdependence.

"We have proven that when churches and the Red Cross partner together amazing things can happen," she said.

Mistakes have also been educational. With the obvious need arising, some churches opened their doors without first coordinating with the Red Cross or any other outreach agencies.

Meeds said after the first few hours, many of those churches realized they needed more help. Their calls for help put additional stress on the Red Cross, which sometimes could not provide what was needed.

As churches opened their doors and hearts to their neighbors, they didn't always realize that other churches nearby were also open, she said. In that way, resources were not being used wisely.

Another problem was that the public was not informed about some church shelters because the media was unaware of them.

The Red Cross's First Steps program allows churches and other facilities to be utilized in the best way for the community and for the church, said Chris Harmon, disaster services coordinator.

Schweitzer's Efforts

Schweitzer United Methodist Church in Springfield has been active in the disaster ministry.

Ed Hewlett, who heads up the ministry, talks about how the church was able to accomplish that.

In 2003, when Hewlett began the ministry, the church had no plans for a disaster. Since then, Schweitzer has not only served as a shelter in times of need, the church has been able to reach out beyond its doors to other communities and other churches, he said.

"You can't budget for it," he admitted.

The church's emergency response trailer, truck and about $20,000 in equipment were all donated, he said. And the work done has been accomplished by volunteers.

"You have to realize this is a ... ministry, not a program of the church," Hewlett said.

But before that ministry could be implemented, the church had to have plans in place. "If you're not prepared, you're part of the problem," he said.

Schweitzer is now a designated Red Cross shelter, housing both those affected by disasters and volunteers who have traveled here to assist. The church also has a regular outreach to churches that are serving as shelters in other communities.

Last summer, the church was the first in the area to be designated as a point of dispensation, or POD, in case of a pandemic or bioterrorist event.

In the case of a flu pandemic, the health department has arranged for several places where the public would be able to obtain anti-viral medication, such as Tamiflu or Relenza.

But staying out of public places is an important part of controlling a pandemic, said Molly Holtmann, health department pandemic health planner.

Organizations would be asked to take care of their own, she said.

Schweitzer volunteers have been trained to distribute the medication to its membership, something every church should do, she said: "We have to take care of each other," she said.

Schweitzer has also participated in the Community Emergency Response Team training through the Office of Emergency Management in Greene County.

"Churches need three or four CERT members in the congregation," said Director of Emergency Management Ryan Nichols.

The training prepares individuals how to take care of themselves and their family, check on neighbors, and then move on to help in the community.

Learning To Help

Leslie Jones and Anthony Johnson attended the HOPE Begins Here program to get credit for a sociology class at Central Bible College. They learned more than they expected.

"I didn't know it takes three to five days for the government to respond to a disaster," said Johnson, 20, who plans to be a pastor.

"I want to help out the community any way I can," added Johnson, who later asked how to get a HOPE Begins Here program in his hometown of Springfield, Ill.

Jones, 19, said her family home in Clinton was destroyed by a fire four years ago. "My church didn't really reach out much," she said.

She plans to take the lessons she learned to her home church and with her when she becomes a missionary.

Learning what needs doing and what a church can do is the next challenge for Troy Teague, pastoral care pastor at Grace Church in Rogersville.

A "team concept church," Grace already has 13 ministry teams, and with about 90-100 members who meet in a strip mall, the church is limited, he said.

"I want to develop a team for one specific area, to be a small part of something big," Teague said. "It could be anything."

The half-day program gave Teague plenty to think about and take back to his church.

"This is an eye opener," he said, "and a heart opener."


Coast Guard recalls Bering Sea rescue
(Published March 25, 2008)

JUNEAU, Alaska — The call came at 2:52 a.m. Sunday.

"Mayday. Mayday. This is the Alaska Ranger ... . We are flooding, taking on water in our rudder room."

Within minutes two Coast Guard helicopters and a search plane lifted off while a cutter equipped a third helicopter headed for the doomed fishing vessel from different parts of Alaska, all converging on a location 120 miles west of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands.

Even with the immediate scramble, it still would take rescuers time to reach the crew, who had abandoned ship.

Nearly 2 1/2 hours.

That left 47 crew members clinging to life in an ice-cold sea and being bandied around by 20-foot water swells. Ultimately 42 of them were rescued by the Coast Guard and the Ranger's sister ship, the Alaska Warrior.

Bodies of four of the five crew members who died, including the captain, were recovered. Alaska State Troopers say the four were in the water, not life boats, for about six hours, and they died of hypothermia. One man was lost at sea.

Coast Guard officials say it was one of the largest rescue efforts in recent memory, but not a total success. One crew member fell out of the rescue basket as it was being hoisted up to a helicopter. No one is certain, but he may have been the crewman who was lost.

A Jayhawk helicopter was the first to arrive, and what flight commander Lt. Brian McLaughlin saw stunned him.

"As we approached the scene, we saw three strobe lights and we assumed those were rafts," McLaughlin said. "The scene was very grim.

"We got a little closer and there was a fourth light, then a fifth, and a sixth and the numbers just kept growing. The ocean was flashing at us over about a mile-long stretch."

By then, the Alaska Ranger could no longer been seen. It sank, within 15 minutes, making its way 6,318 feet to the sea floor. That's deep enough to stack the Statue of Liberty and its foundation atop one another 20 times over.

What remained were a stretch of crew in survival suits - some illuminated in small pods, others alone - and a series of life rafts holding fishing crew.

Another helicopter and a search plane were slowed by head winds, so it was up to the Jayhawk to perform the initial rescues while it waited for the Coast Guard cutter, Munro, and its Dolphin helicopter to arrive.

While McLaughlin surveyed the area, Petty Officer 2nd Class O'Brien Hollow prepared to drop into the unlit waters. Waiting for daylight that was still hours away was not an option if rescuers were to save as many as possible.

Attached to a steel cable, Hollow descended into the water littered with crew members to see who needed the most immediate attention. He placed 13 survivors one-by-one into a basket-like gurney. He stayed in the water watching as each was hoisted into the aircraft.

"We were moving 30 to 50 feet sometimes with the swell," Hollow said of the time he was in the water, trying to stay in sync with the helicopter pilot. "We moved left, right, north, south, east, west.

As the 33-year-old Hollow worked, neither the Munro nor the Alaska Warrior had arrived.

But once the cutter got to within 80 miles, it launched its rescue helicopter, the Dolphin, armed with four crew members, said Munro Capt. Craig Lloyd.

Within 10 minutes after the Dolphin took off and about three hours after the fishing vessel's mayday call, the Jayhawk approached the cutter with its first group of survivors.

The Jayhawk first tried to take them to the Warrior because the vessel arrived before the Munro, but the Warrior's deck was filled with fishing gear and covered with sheets of ice.

"In the end, it would have been too dangerous to lower them on board," McLaughlin said.

So the Jayhawk flew another 50 miles to the cutter, which was not equipped to have this size aircraft land, but, unlike the Warrior, it could accommodate a passenger transfer.

One by one, survivors found themselves again in baskets. They were lowered to the ship, greeted by two crew members, then escorted to a mess hall that received a quick conversion into a medical ward.

Survivors received attention in the ad-hoc emergency room, replete with heaters, bags of intravenous fluids, special sleeping bags to fight hypothermia and warm blankets fresh out a dryer.

In the meantime, the Warrior was able to rescue crew members from life rafts, and the helicopters were able to pluck the rest from the Bering Sea. And the rescue didn't come without some amount of sacrifice on the part of the Coast Guard crew. Petty Officer Third Class Abe Heller at one point remained in the water so there would be enough room on the helicopter for the survivors and to keep close tabs on three remaining crew members still in the water.

Watching the survivors regroup after the rescue, Lloyd, the captain of the Munro, spotted one fisherman designing a new tattoo: that of an anchor featuring the words, "Ranger Survivor."

Coast Guard members say their efforts worked not just because of their rigorous training, but the quick thinking of the crew.

The captain of the Alaska ranger, Eric Peter Jacobsen, made certain his men had survival jackets before going overboard, according to second-hand reports from friends of crew members. The crew themselves were ordered not to talk to the media by the vessel's owner, the Seattle-based Fishing Company of Alaska.

The 42 survivors were ultimately returned to Dutch Harbor, where the fateful journey began for the Alaska Ranger.

The Munro brought the last group in late Monday. Only one crewman, Alex Olivares, spoke as he and others were hustled from the ship to waiting cabs.

"Glad to be alive," he said.