Emergency procedures: what Ohio is prepared to handle

Melody Wachowski

Symposium discusses safety protocol, learning lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Christopher Woolverton, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness, talks about the new Biosafety Training Laboratory in Cunningham Hall. LESLIE CUSANO | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: John Proppe

Disasters, whether natural or man-made, can occur unexpectedly. Whatever the time element, Ohio is doing its best to prepare for crises and is learning more about disaster control every day.

At the second annual Public Health Preparedness Symposium yesterday, guest speakers presented their views on issues ranging from electron beam radiation as a means of controlling bioterror agents to Ohio’s preparedness for disaster.

C.J. Couch, chief of public affairs for the Emergency Management Agency, was a keynote speaker at the symposium. Couch serves as supervisor for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency’s Field Operations Branch, where he directs field liaisons on preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters.

Because natural disasters such as hurricanes have been a recent issue, Couch wasted no time addressing what he referred to as “the elephant in the room: Hurricane Katrina.”

“Ohio itself receives a lot of damage from the aftermath of hurricanes that come from the Gulf Coast, which is why Ohio residents are so compassionate to those affected by them,” Couch said.

Through the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, 4,000 Ohioans helped the Gulf Coast states after Hurricane Katrina, in addition to individuals who traveled to states in need, making Ohio’s contribution the third largest in the nation, Couch said.

The reasons why Ohio was able to contribute so much to the Hurricane Katrina disaster is directly related to the resources that are already in place.

“Our agencies, on the state and local levels, have the proper equipment, training and knowledge needed to help disaster victims,” Couch said.

According to Federal Emergency Management Agency calculations, approximately 11,000 people moved to Ohio after the hurricane, the equivalent of more than 4,000 households, Couch said. Shelters were set up in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland to help the displaced people.

So what are the plans for a safe Ohio?

According to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, the primary focus of the agency is to respond to an emergency or disaster and to lead relief efforts against the effects of future disasters.

Networking is also a key component.

“A safer future depends on creating effective partnerships with separate organizations, such as the National Guard,” Couch said.

In case of a disaster, there is a specific sequence of response that begins at the local or county level. Next, a request can be sent for state assistance, and lastly, for federal disaster relief.

“If local aid is in place … when we have a disaster, we can reach out to our neighbors,” Couch said.

Homeland Security grants totaled more than $411 million in 2006. Local agencies were each given a base amount; later, more money will be allocated depending on the size and need of the infrastructures within the counties.

Counties are then responsible for setting up advisory teams with representatives who will decide what to buy and when to buy it.

Since money is always an issue, Couch said, “We can spend it fast, or we can spend it smart.”

Is Ohio ready for a natural or man-made disaster? Yes and no, Couch said.

“We are more ready than ever, but it is still an evolutionary process.”

Contact social services reporter Melody Wachowski at [email protected].