At the end of September, a group of Pulaski County officials met to discuss what could be learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
County Judge Buddy Villines was interested in worst-case scenarios.
“What will we do,” he asked, “if the decision is ever made to evacuate part of Pulaski County?”
North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hays chimed in: “And who makes that decision?”
Like a flashlight scanning a nighttime disaster, that exchange illuminates part of the problem that faces emergency planners.
Years of preparation and training, at levels from volunteer fire departments to the state disaster office, have established chunks of a disaster plan. But key elements of that plan are not well connected. And others, officials are beginning to learn, may not have been thought of at all.
After the hurricanes, Villines was one of several Arkansas county judges who found that the system they’d been relying on didn’t work as they thought it would.
Evacuees were flooding into Arkansas. And county officials wanted to help.
But how many were coming? Where were they headed? What did they need? And what resources were already there?
Villines had expected that the system under which the state’s disaster responders had trained would be in place: the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, ADEM, would serve as command-central, relaying information to county officials, who would then alert local emergency personnel.
But Katrina and Rita had some hard lessons to teach the nation. As Villines put it, their lesson for Arkansas was: “There’s no clear view of how information should be flowing.”
Some county judges have been more outspoken, blaming Gov. Mike Huckabee for establishing an emergency command post in his office, confounding not only his own state agency, but many other responders as well.
Washington County Judge Jerry Hunton complained that Huckabee’s move created “headaches and confusion,” adding, “And anytime you have an emergency, the one thing you want is to avoid confusion.”
ADEM director Wayne Ruthven acknowledged to reporters that, for a time, county officials were getting information — some of it contradictory — from both ADEM and the governor’s office. Still, Ruthven supported the governor’s decision to coordinate the response by faith-based organizations out of his own office.
Having watched the chaos that enveloped New Orleans after Katrina and the traffic that snarled out of Houston ahead of Rita, Villines and other disaster officials have begun looking around Arkansas, asking the serious question: what would happen if conditions required a large evacuation here?
Villines sees an area around the Little Rock National Airport, for instance, that is economically depressed.
“It’s one thing to say you’ve got a mandatory evacuation,” he said, “but it’s another to actually get people out, especially if they lack transportation.”
Questions are now being asked about who would advise or order an evacuation, where evacuees would be directed or taken, and how services and supplies would be delivered there.
Underlying all these questions, however, is an assessment of the risks in Arkansas. It has always been clear that hurricanes pose a threat to America’s Gulf coast. What are the big threats here?
The ‘big three’
Few people have a keener sense of the disasters that could require evacuations in Arkansas than Dr. Jeffrey Connelly, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Connelly and some of his colleagues have spent years assessing the risks the state and its counties face from natural hazards. Much of what follows is based on their research.
Plotting the magnitude or severity of certain events against their historic frequency, Connelly and his team established four categories of disaster.
Class A, the worst, result in deaths. They severely damage more than half the property in an area and shut down facilities and critical services for at least a month.
Class B disasters cause serious injury or illness. They result in severe damage to more than 25 percent of the property in an area, and shut down facilities and critical services for two weeks or more.
Both Class A and Class B disasters could require evacuation.
Class C and D are risks such as heavy snowfalls, small landslides, and seasonal droughts. Events in these two categories usually result in limited property damage and injuries that can be treated with first aid.
Evacuation would not be possible or helpful for some Class A and B disasters. In Arkansas, for example, serious tornadoes rank as Class B risks. They kill and cause enormous damage. Yet, due to their suddenness and unpredictability, as well as their limited range, the familiar warning to take cover is usually the best response to them.
Connelly’s research did not include other possible disasters, such as deadly flu pandemics or terrorist attacks, but, of all the hazards that can reasonably be foreseen, he considers these three Class A and Class B risks the most likely to require evacuation.
In terms of frequency, a serious flood is the one most likely to displace large populations. Class A and Class B floods are to Arkansas what hurricanes are to the coast: cyclic and variable, but expected.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ranks Arkansas fourth among all the states in flood risk — behind only Florida, Texas and Louisiana, all of which have suffered serious flooding this year.
There are two types of worst-case flood scenarios for Arkansas, and both have often occurred. The first is called a riverine flood. Rain falls for days, saturating the ground and swelling rivers. The rivers overflow their banks. Levees may be overtopped or breached.
Many people don’t realize that much of Arkansas, like Louisiana, is protected from flooding by levees. The Mississippi, Arkansas and White rivers, as well as many others, are lined with miles of levees. Sometimes, as in Louisiana, the levees can actually function in reverse, preventing waters from draining quickly after a heavy rain.
Riverine floods can last for weeks. Every day the rain continues, the disaster is compounded.
The terrible flood of 1927 — one of America’s greatest disasters — was a riverine flood. Heavy springtime rain, here and in many states to the north, raised rivers to crest stage and beyond.
Eventually, the rivers broke through or overflowed most of the levees in Arkansas and six other states. The flood forced massive evacuations, killed hundreds, and left 750,000 people homeless.
Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has poured millions of dollars into flood-control projects along the state’s major rivers. But, as the disaster in New Orleans showed, levees can create a false sense of security.
As many Arkansans know, riverine floods still occur. Flooding in 1990 killed two people and caused $60 million in damage. In the spring of 1997, flooding along the Mississippi River inundated at least 300 houses to a depth of up to three feet. Elsewhere in Arkansas, 11 inches of rain fell over a 24-hour period.
The hospital in Magnolia, in Columbia County, had one foot of water in it. Many bridges were washed away, and damage to other structures in Magnolia alone totaled more than $11 million.
That year, more than one-third of the counties in Arkansas were named federal disaster areas due to the floods.
Flash floods typically occur in the more hilly or mountainous regions found in the western half of the state, but in the past 10 years, every county in Arkansas has experienced at least one flash flood. In 1990, flash flooding in Hot Springs sent two separate walls of water, four to six feet high, coursing down Central Avenue. Carpenter Dam Bridge over Lake Catherine was washed away. More than 300 homes outside the Hot Springs area had to be evacuated.
Arkansas not only has many rivers. It has many dams. Prolonged periods of rain, landslides and earthquakes can cause dams to fail.
It is not well known, but the Army Corps of Engineers assesses all dams, rating their vulnerability. In 1992, the Corps’ “hazard” classification for many of the dams in Arkansas was rated “significant” or “high.”
In that assessment, almost all the dams in northern Sharp County, for instance, were deemed highly vulnerable. The risk to several in Pulaski County was also classified as “significant” or “high.”
(To see the 1992 Corps map showing the locations of dams and their hazard ratings, go to http://quake.ualr.edu/armitig-plan/pdfs/fig1_6.pdf.)
So far, no dam failure has resulted in a significant flood in Arkansas. But the risk cannot be discounted. The most common cause of dam failure is prolonged rainfall that produces flooding. According to Connelly, over the past 130 years, Arkansas has experienced such prolonged periods of rainfall, on average, once every five years.
The second Class A or Class B threat is a major earthquake in northeast Arkansas. ADEM estimates that as many as 600,000 Arkansans could face death, injury or dislocation if an earthquake, magnitude of 6.0 or greater, rumbled through the active, New Madrid seismic zone.
While flooding rates high on the risk chart because floods are destructive and fairly frequent, major earthquakes are highly infrequent. That a possible New Madrid quake rates as a Class A or Class B disaster reflects the tremendous death, destruction and dislocation that would result if a series of massive quakes, such as hit the area in the winter of 1811-1812, should recur.
Scientists set the chance that a major earthquake, magnitude 7.0 or greater, will occur within the next 50 years at between 9 and 29 percent.
The chance that the region will experience a damaging, 6.0 quake fairly soon are far greater. Scientists say there is a 40 to 63 percent probability that a quake of that size will hit the area within the next 15 years.
A magnitude-7 quake is expected to cause severe effects, not just in Arkansas, but throughout the central United States. An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater, such as rattled Marked Tree in 1843, would affect an area of more than 60,000 square miles.
Geologists estimate as many as 24 Arkansas counties could experience severe ground-shaking, resulting in deaths from falling structures, including bridges and highway overpasses.
Flooding could be a secondary result of a serious quake, if weakened levees and dams give way. Fires could pose another immediate threat, from ruptured gas lines. So could the release of hazardous chemicals from trucks and derailed tank cars.
All of these hazards would be compounded if emergency response is hampered by damaged roads, bridges, runways and rail lines.
Much of rural Arkansas could be inaccessible, Connelly noted. “And, if all the resources were going to Memphis and St. Louis, the concern is that those people in some of our counties will be isolated and have to fend for themselves for some period of time.”
The whole nation would feel the economic shock of such a quake. Because the New Madrid Seismic Zone underlies one of the country’s major transportation corridors, the damage a major New Madrid quake would inflict on the transportation system alone is expected to exceed $100 billion.
Harm to that system would not only delay delivery of emergency medical aid to victims. It could stop or slow delivery of more than four million barrels per day of crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas.
Most railway bridges in the region are more than 85 years old. Even if they looked undamaged, they would be unsafe to cross. And, if the Mississippi River were reconfigured, as happened during the quake two centuries ago, it could take years for shipping on the river — and hence, its tributaries — to return to current levels.
Because of its geology, Little Rock is expected to be spared the level of damage that could befall cities to the east and northeast, especially Memphis and St. Louis. If a major quake occurs, those cities could be devastated.
That would make Little Rock one of the perimeter sites to which evacuees would come seeking shelter, and from which relief to stricken areas would be expected to flow.
3. Chemical weapons
Connelly’s research did not address “non-natural hazards,” but he acknowledged being concerned about the chance for an accidental release of hazardous chemicals. Evacuation in such an event would be essential, but, while a hurricane might loom off-shore for days, in the case of a chemical release, Connelly noted, “We won’t have three or four days’ warning.”
Tremendous volumes of hazardous materials pass through Arkansas every day by rail, highway and river. Accidental spills are always a possibility — one that could force a short-term evacuation around a limited area.
The chemical weapons stored in Jefferson County, however, pose a much greater and more consistent kind of danger. Though the site is highly controlled, a major accident there would be a Class A emergency, requiring a large and difficult evacuation.
Twelve percent of the nation’s aging chemical weapon stockpile is stored at the Pine Bluff Arsenal. The chemicals there can kill or seriously harm humans, animals and plants.
The two types of chemical weapons stored at the arsenal are nerve and blister agents. As their name suggests, blister agents. or mustard agents as they are usually called, are chemical weapons agents that get their name due to the wounds they cause, which resemble blisters or burns. These agents also cause severe tissue damage to the eyes, respiratory system and internal organs.
Nerve agents disrupt proper nerve function, causing paralysis or uncontrollable muscle movement, seizures, and death by suffocation. Odorless and colorless, they can enter a body through inhalation, skin contact or ingestion.
In 1985, Congress ordered that these weapons be eliminated. Because of the risks associated with handling these weapons, even to destroy them, the Army established its CSEPP — Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program — to help communities deal with any hazards that might arise.
Since 1985, federal officials have decided that incineration is the safest process. However, before the chemical weapons can be incinerated, their components — the lethal agents, explosives, and metal casings — must first be separated. And therein lies the risk.
The greatest hazard would lie within 9.5 miles of the arsenal. However, evacuation maps showing the quickest routes away from the arsenal have been designed for people living within roughly a 30-mile radius of it.
The extent of the risk — and the direction evacuees will have to flee — will depend on wind conditions at the time.
If chemical agents are released into the air, they will dissipate in a plume. The scale of the chemical release, combined with the wind’s speed and direction, will determine the size and shape of the plume.
Army officials calculate that — worst case scenario — the dangerous plume would extend 25 to 30 miles from the arsenal, before the toxic, airborne agents would safely dissipate.
If a strong, north-northwesterly wind were blowing, it is calculated that a plume of that size would approach the southern edge of Little Rock.
Almost any wind in the opposite direction would envelope the city of Pine Bluff.
The variables of explosive force and wind make it impossible to assign definite evacuation routes for the residents of Jefferson and Grant counties, the people who would be at greatest risk from a chemical release.
The most elaborate evacuation plans developed for Arkansas address an accident at Pine Bluff Arsenal. And even those plans are riddled with uncertainties.
Persons living within 9.5 miles of the Pine Bluff Arsenal have been issued special tone-alert radios. If there is an emergency at the arsenal, the radios are to sound an alarm.
The National Weather Service is to broadcast emergency information for Arkansans living outside the 9.5-mile radius, and commercial broadcasters will be notified.
In the event of a chemical “incident,” 58 sirens, located in and around the arsenal and in Grant and Jefferson counties, are to emit a “whoop” tone. A voice message is supposed follow, instructing listeners either to evacuate, or, if evacuation is too dangerous, to “shelter in place.”
That means getting people and pets into a central room that has few, if any, windows and about 10 square feet per person.
However impractical it might be, the idea is to grab duct tape and plastic to quickly seal vents, cracks and other openings. Turn off all air conditioners, heating systems, exhaust systems, and attic fans, and close fireplace flues.
But don’t expect to stay in the room for long.
At some point, the air outside the building will become safer than the air inside. When authorities decide that that has happened, they will advise evacuation. This too should be done quickly.
Many of those affected will have to rely on broadcast instructions to know which direction to head, lest they opt for a highway that leads into the plume.
A Joint Information Center has been established in Pine Bluff to release instructions directing evacuees to one of 12 “reception centers.”
The Pine Bluff Convention Center and the National Guard Armory in Sheridan are closest to the arsenal. Little Rock’s Barton Coliseum is the biggest reception center.
More than 2,000 emergency responders, such as paid and volunteer firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies and emergency medical crews, have been trained to staff the reception centers, providing first aid, emergency information and help in locating family members.
How long evacuees would have to stay away from the area affected by the plume is uncertain. Homes and other structures would have to be aired out before they would be safe to inhabit.
To view the evacuation map, hear the siren tones, and locate the 12 designated reception centers, go to: www.ArkansasCSEPP.com.
These evacuation plans are the most developed in the state. That leaves to the reader’s imagination how various populations would fare in cases of dire flooding or a region-shattering earthquake.
Emergency workers in all the counties have tried to formulate plans, based on various risk assessments. And efforts have been made to coordinate the work of police and fire personnel with hospitals, school systems, and relief agencies.
The best plan, as always, is to avoid catastrophes in the first place by building earthquake-proof buildings, inspecting and fortifying dams and levees, and not creating such insidious weapons as nerve agents. But nature — including human nature — can be indifferent. Calamities are bound to occur.
When they do, sirens are supposed to sound. After that, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen.
Pulaski County, for instance, has three different emergency jurisdictions: Little Rock, North Little Rock, and the county. Their communication systems are not well integrated. Their siren systems operate independently.
The county siren system has three tones, according to Kathy Botsford, the county’s director of emergency management. And North Little Rock’s director of emergency management, Rick Ezell, said that city’s alarm system is “pretty much the same as the county’s.”
Ezell says most people know that a wail means “take cover,” and probably means that a tornado has been sighted in the area. A “short-yip” tone, on the other hand, would suggest a hazardous-materials incident, and require evacuation.
Ezell acknowledged, however, that most residents probably don’t know that.
In that instance, Ezell said, police would issue instructions through public-address systems in their patrol cars. All areas would rely on radio and television broadcasters to relay specific instructions.
Little Rock’s newly installed sirens can relay voice instructions. They also have seven alert tones, which can be heard at: http://outdoor.whelen.com/warningtones.htm. Whether anyone in Little Rock knows what the tones mean is another matter.
Communication between agencies is patchy too, though officials in all agencies say that work is underway to improve that. Cell phones tend to fail in emergencies, and often radio communication between well-intentioned responders is less than optimal.
A tornado just last month provided a good example of what can happen. After the tornado cut a nine-mile path through two counties, White County Sheriff Pat Garrett said that at one site, where four homes and a church were destroyed, emergency vehicles clogged roadways, blocking other emergency responders’ access to the scene.
“We were checking places that had already been checked,” Garrett told a reporter. “We weren’t getting any information from the dispatch center.”
A program is now underway to convert the radio system used by the Arkansas State Police from analog to digital.
Plans also call for the new system to be integrated with radios at all the counties’ emergency command-and-control centers sometime next year. Integration of the state radio system with the Army’s CSEPP equipment is now underway.
Until full interoperability can be achieved, agencies at the federal, state and local levels rely on volunteer ham radio operators to fill the gaps.
Villines acknowledges that his county’s three separate dispatch centers cause him “concern.” So does the fact that police and fire departments operate on different radio frequencies.
In addition, Villines is keeping an eye on the weather.
“In a world that’s getting warmer, with more hurricanes, and possibly more tornadoes, and more flooding, etcetera, I want to get more comfortable that we’re ready to face the situation, if something bigger, meaner and badder happens.”