Emergency response only a practice run
Abe and Amelia Anderson had been lucky.
In a drill that tested Stafford County’s emergency plans on Thursday, a fake tornado ripped through the Andersons’ home in the Austin Ridge subdivision, but the two were not injured.
“Our house got wiped out. We were down in the basement and we heard it. It was a noise like a freight train,” said Mike Mintzer, who assumed the role of Abe Anderson for the drill.
Mintzer drew the description from the role he was directed to play, but the experience might have been similar to that of some Stafford residents in 2008 when a tornado hit the England Run area of the county. There were no fatalities during that incident, but homes were damaged and the county’s command center, which directs resources during emergencies, became mobile and moved to the area.
On Thursday for the drill, a Category 4 hurricane called Grace hit the Hampton Roads area. The hurricane not only caused a tornado to hit Stafford, but hurricane victims evacuating the coast flooded into the county. The governor declared a state of emergency, which was followed by a similar declaration by the county administrator.
As they did in 2008, the command center made up of senior staff in multiple departments came together on Thursday. They converged in a room at the bottom of the public safety building.
There, staff that would direct policy sat in an enclosed room as other staff in an adjacent room communicated with various officials on the ground.
Because the simulation created large numbers of displaced people and many injuries, it tested one of the county’s emergency plans that’s still in the draft stage.
That plan, according to Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Stone, goes beyond giving people a meal and cot. By setting up a reception area and a shelter, it helps identify people’s needs, he said.
“They won’t leave here with nothing,” Stone said.
Their home destroyed, the Andersons headed to St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which served as the reception center that directed victims to the services that they needed.
The Andersons stood in line for some time as staff took a pause from the drill to make adjustments to the way that they were registering people.
“We know that there are gaps, and we are taking steps to address those gaps,” Stafford Fire Chief Mark Lockhart said.
After they signed in, Abe Anderson was sent to be interviewed on his experience by staff members with social work backgrounds. From there, he joined his wife in the multipurpose room where food was available. Victims could also access the Internet in the center’s internet café—if the Internet worked at the time—or visit with their children in the church’s nursery.
“People could get their insurance information this way if it was buried under their house,” Stone said of the Internet café.
While the Andersons were being processed, a woman with mumps was taken to an isolation room. Another victim had to be calmed down by a deputy and a manager when he became irritated by the timing. Both were surprises that Virginia Department of Emergency Management officials threw at the roughly 100 people participating in the drill. Those participants consisted of county staffers, some state employees, church volunteers and Stafford Community Emergency Response Team members.
Some of the roughly 30 fake victims in the reception center who needed long- or short-term shelter were later transported to the shelter at Rodney Thompson Middle School. The Andersons arrived with a blind victim whose house he said had holes in it.
After being processed, the Andersons moved toward the shelter’s multipurpose room where people could watch television from a large projector. The Internet was also accessible. To sleep, 50 cots were laid out in the school’s gymnasium.
The shelter could accommodate hundreds of people for days if need be. It could also take in up to 45 animals in a unit placed outside the school. That unit, the only one of its kind in the region, was purchased through grant and county money in 2012.
By the end of the nearly four-hour drill, participants and role-playing victims convened back at the county’s public safety building to provide input on what worked and what needed to improve.
VDEM will use the feedback to complete an improvement plan to the county’s mass care plan that was tested. After those suggestions have been incorporated, the mass care plan will go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Vanessa Remmers: 540/735-1975