“In the 1983 flood, Gila River closed and the Interstate 8 had water all over the top of it, so they had to close it down. The north-south route was completely shut down,” said Greg Stanley, assistant Pinal County manager. “ We’re trying to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that we don’t repeat them."
The event took place at Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch Community Center in Florence. Representatives from businesses, government agencies and media outlets around Pinal County were in attendance to take part in an open discussion in the hopes of finding multiple solutions to the problem of disaster readiness.
“In this tabletop exercise, you’ll see the purpose and structure of a model scenario. This entire exercise is about focusing on the information that is being presented to you. It’s presented for the exercise and not necessarily the scenario we expect to take place,” said Lou Miranda, director of Pinal County’s Office of Emergency Management, at the meeting. “ We want to make sure that you are well prepared for a disaster. The information and challenges that we present to you today is offered by some of the best information and comes from a large variety of subject matter and experts because we want to make sure that we have good economic sustainment and economic resiliency. We are all part of one great big community, and we are ensuring that in the face of such a disaster our businesses will be able to recover as quickly as possible because if you succeed, then we all succeed.”
One of the goals of the exercise was to make sure local businesses and government officials were prepared in case of an emergency.
Another goal for the office of emergency management was assisting these entities with planning their own emergency plan as well as generate ideas about future disaster solutions.
First, participants pretended that a tropical storm or hurricane was headed for Pinal County.
At this point, one of the best things the county can do is to warn the public, said Heather Murphy, public information officer for the county.
“One possible outcome that we should be thinking about is the problem with mobile home parks and whether or not they can sustain that kind of water level,” she said during the exercise. “One of the best ways to help out with informing the public is by utilizing the media. DPS and some of our other organizations do a great job of pushing that information out there.”
In the second part, the storm was in full effect over Pinal County and the participants needed to imagine or present solutions for the new problems presented.
Greg Stanley, assistant offered some insight on how the government will be pressured at these times.
“One thing I know is that government agencies are going to be having their emergency respond centers up and running. They are going to get their employees where they need to be in order to provide the necessary services,” he said.
Finally, disaster recovery was attempted in the third exercise.
The simulated conditions in the exercise included what would happen if the county got about eight inches of rain. Many problems that included flooding were presented as secondary problems caused by the storm. The estimated damages if such a storm hit the county would likely be more than $2 billion, Mr. Miranda said.
“Our goals are to make sure we are prepared for an emergency situation, and to make sure that we are prepared when that emergency situation occurs. Finally, we want to make sure that you can recover as quickly as possible, so you can get back to sustaining and maintaining your business,” Mr. Miranda said.
Layton Dickerson, private sector coordinator from the county’s office of emergency management, gave a presentation on the importance of having a disaster plan for businesses.
“My day job is working with private sector partners just like you, so I know how important it is to grow and maintain those relationships with our private sector partners,” he said. “ We all need to have plans in the private sector because they let us respond more swiftly and protect our employees in a disaster.”
Ultimately, the exercise was about protecting business in Pinal County, so economic growth could build in the community.
To help show local businesses that having a plan is a smart idea, he offered some statistics he had learned on how real disasters can affect them.
“In the businesses that have experienced a disaster and have no emergency plan, 43 percent of them are never able to reopen after experiencing that disaster. Of those who were able to reopen, only 29 percent are still operating two years after the disaster. That’s why it is so important for us to develop written plans and work with stakeholders and responders, so we can maintain that resiliency,” he said.
Many representatives from organizations in Pinal County were in attendance.
Chris Wodka, vice president of finance and administration for Central Arizona College, was on hand to answer questions about the state of the yet unopened Central Arizona College San Tan Valley Center and how emergencies would be handled there.
Central Arizona College is hoping to break ground in San Tan Valley before the end of 2012.
“It’s not operational, but the (emergency) process should be more or less what we have at our other campuses. Every campus is a little different, but using the same plan should be done initially,” he said. “At CAC, we have over 500 students on our campus, and our police chief does an emergency disaster drill every semester because we have students who are different because they turn in and out. Our system is written as well as verbal and we have a texting system, so when there is an emergency we can get a hold of them. This presumes that that phones even work to begin with.”
John White, city of Apache Junction finance manager, was fascinated by some of the ideas put forward in the meeting.
“I know we do a lot of work with the county to develop better systems. At least when we’re here, we can develop this one today. The more I learn about it, the more important having a plan seems,” he said. “For our office, transportation would be one of the biggest issues. Another issue is that if a disaster happens at certain times of the year, we have a different population demographic to content with. We should be worrying about how people are getting in and out of the county and about who has access to isolated areas.”
By Alexander Foote