Disaster plans likely won’t include Civic Center

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, December 18, 2013
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Shelter? Yes.

At the Decatur Civic Center? Not likely.

A breakdown in communication among the Red Cross, the county and the city during the Dec. 6-10 ice storm led to a dozen people living at the Decatur Civic Center for four days.

It worked out pretty well for them – especially the food – but it’s not something the city wants to see repeated.

A proposed contract between the city and the Red Cross got no action on the city council’s agenda Monday night, but it did generate some discussion. Civic Center director Lori Sherwood updated the council on her experience during that four days, and Fire Chief Mike Richardson explained how it came to be that the city’s showplace meeting facility was turned into a shelter for stranded travelers.

Sherwood said she knew the Civic Center had an agreement with the Red Cross but was taken by surprise when a Red Cross representative called the day before the storm hit.

“They called and said, ‘We’re bringing our trailer out,'” she said.

Once they arrived, they began ticking off a list of things she was expected to provide.

“They weren’t even asked for ahead of time,” she said. “He moved in and said, ‘OK, where’s your showers? Where’s your towels?’ Where’s this and that?’ We secured the kitchen, and the kitchen was still broken into.

“I have very expensive equipment on the stage where the showers are, and I told him, ‘No, no, no, no, no – you cannot use my showers’ and he said, ‘That’s part of the agreement’ and I said, ‘I’ve never agreed to any of this.'”

Fire Chief Mike Richardson told the council it came about because of a breakdown in communication.

“The way that occurred is considerably outside the protocol of a comprehensive emergency plan that exists here in the city,” he said. “I did a little digging today to find out where it all fell apart – and it fell apart at the county.”

He said he’d already begun discussions with the county’s emergency management coordinators.

“They surely shouldn’t have done the request through her,” he said. “The request should have come through Rex or me. That’s the emergency plan. That’s the way the state requires it, that’s the way the county’s own plan requires it, and it’s certainly the way the city plan requires it.”

Richardson said the city’s sheltering plans include the National Guard Armory and the First United Methodist Church.

“The Civic Center is absolutely the last thing we want to use as a shelter,” he said. “A shelter is going to be abused, no matter where we do it. When there’s a lot of people you have toiletry issues, showers, things like that.

“We’ve spent a lot of time developing a plan that takes care of all those things in advance.”

Deputy Fire Marshal J.C. Travis said Tuesday that he and Fire Marshal Chuck Beard indeed could have done a better job coordinating and communicating.

“Chuck and I are new to this – doing it here,” he said. “I guess what confused us is, our liaison from Red Cross basically called us and said, ‘Hey look, I’ve got this contract with the city, at the Civic Center. How does that work for you?’

“We thought, ‘If you’ve got a contract and you’re opening a shelter, we’re good with that. That’s a little off of our plate.’

“We didn’t even think about the fact that that was in the city, and that we should have talked to Chief Richardson and gone that direction,” he said. “We just never thought about it.

He said for the stranded travelers – including a couple of barefoot hitchhikers from Pennsylvania – it worked out well. He thanked the city and the Red Cross for what they did and promised he and Beard will know better next time.

“They did a great job,” he said. “We appreciate the way it went – now we look at it and evaluate and learn from it.”

Richardson said the city wouldn’t have even opened a shelter for just 12 people.

“We have things laid out to provide hotel rooms, things like that, for that number,” he said. “We have to reach a certain number before we would start opening shelters. It should never have happened.”

Travis said he wondered himself why the Civic Center was used.

“It really is too pretty of a building for us to be using as a shelter,” he said. “Most of the shelters I’ve ever used in the past have been schools, and those are ideal locations. They’re institutional. They’re designed more for it. They always have shower facilities.

“This is a learning curve,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that the city gave us that facility to use, and that Red Cross jumped in there and made that happen. But I see that we could do it better. What it’s going to take is some communication and some pre-planning.”

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