Kent prepares for natural disaster possibilities in wake of hurricanes

Audrey Wagstaff

With flood waters in New Orleans and other portions of the Gulf Coast still receding, many locals are considering what would happen if a natural disaster struck Kent.

Although the event of an actual hurricane striking Northeast Ohio is unlikely, other natural disasters such as tornados, floods and winter storms do affect this region. The recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina has many public officials questioning Kent’s preparedness.

Kent’s Safety Director Ed Lillich said the hurricane got his office thinking.

“We got a real wake-up call from what happened on the Gulf Coast,” he said.

Lillich said his concerns were with some of the “obvious little things” that are often overlooked in organizing plans in case of a disaster.

According to Lillich, organizing plans such as these are time consuming.

“Everything has to go by level,” he said. “First, we must work with the county, then the state, then up to the feds.”

Before the city is ready to contact an organization like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it must have plans in place similar to county and state-level plans.

Included in the basic plans already in place are what Lillich calls “primary threats.”

Threats of high priority are typically weather related, including tornados, heavy rains and severe winter storms. Lower priority threats are hazardous materials, train derailment, major fires, terrorism, mass epidemics, such as a lethal strain of flu, and civil disturbance.

Terrorism is not as high a threat for Kent because of the size and location of the city, but it is still something attention should be paid to, Lillich said.

During city council committee meetings, members discussed the city’s preparedness. The Council passed a National Incident Management System program to adequately train those responding to emergencies, locally and nationally, and address specific concerns with the consequences of natural disasters.

There are some specific concerns that natural disasters create, such as water safety.

Gene Roberts, the service director of Kent’s water treatment facilities, believes Kent is in good shape water-wise.

“We don’t have the concern of contamination because we pump water from ground wells,” he said.

According to Roberts, New Orleans’ contaminated drinking water is a result of using surface water for drinking.

Roberts said bigger concerns may lie in trying to put out more than two simultaneous fires because obtaining a large amount of water to fight fires taxes the system.

“The same water you’re drinking is the water the fire department is using to put out a fire,” he said.

Another concern with safe drinking water is biological and chemical contaminants typically moved by floodwater.

According to Philippa Cannon, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region Five spokeswoman, drinking water may become polluted when flooding occurs because floodwater picks up debris and chemicals.

Roberts said the water treatment plant treats 5 million gallons of water per day, enough to service between the 29,000 summer and 52,000 school-year residents.

“Our system is very well-suited to clean water and put it back into nature,” Roberts said.

Another large area of concern lies within the health department’s jurisdiction. Natural disasters could increase the likelihood of spreading disease. Disasters may also cause contamination, and, in turn, limit the number of medical supplies or vaccines available. Therefore, it’s best to have extra medications and drinking water around when disaster is likely to strike, as well as be up-to-date on vaccinations.

Contact public affairs reporter Audrey Wagstaff at [email protected].