Learning from disasters’ lessons

KINGSTON — After helping in Louisiana last fall with recovery efforts from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, North Kitsap Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Dan Smith and Bainbridge Island Fire Chief Jim Walkowski have a new perspective on preparing for natural disasters.

And they hope to teach the lessons they learned down south to residents here.

Given the timing of the pair’s arrival in Louisiana, from mid-September to mid-October, the two fire officials got to see the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, followed by the before-and-after effects of Hurricane Rita in Cameron Parish, on the westside of the state.

In Baton Rouge, Smith and Walkowski were liaison officers between Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Louisiana for all parishes following Hurricane Katrina. However, the operations center was not receiving information from Cameron Parish and Smith and Walkowski were asked to head west to investigate the situation. When they got there, they realized it had been evacuated but they were able to locate a volunteer firefighter who had stuck around. By this time, Rita was on its way and the three men set up an incident command center in Cameron and rode out the storm.

“I’d never seen it rain so hard in my life,” Walkowski said. A National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration buoy, located 8-10 miles offshore from Cameron, recorded 160 mph winds and 20-foot plus tidal surges, which both increased in intensity as the elements moved inland, he said.

During their time there, the men found boats washed ashore 15 miles inland and homes completely wiped off their foundations, Walkowski said. Telephone poles were physically lifted out of the ground and moved elsewhere. The tidal surges had moved alligators, snakes and cows inland together, creating a bit of a hostile environment within the animal kingdom.

Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the cemeteries, too, uprooting headstones and tearing out crypts.

“Take a city, put it in a blender, mix it up, then pour it out — that’s what happened in Cameron,” Walkowski said.

While the Northwest is more prone to earthquakes than hurricanes, applicable lessons learned during their time in Louisiana helped drive home a single point — be ready for anything.

“We can’t prepare our people enough,” Walkowski said.

When disaster hits, everything, especially technology, fails, he said, adding that the only thing that worked during the recovery efforts was face-to-face communication.

While the Northwest doesn’t face hurricanes and those type of natural events can be somewhat predicted by meteorologists, residents have at least some time to prepare for it. But earthquakes aren’t as predictable and “we don’t have 48 hours (to prepare),” Smith said.

Fire agencies are asking residents to have supplies ready to last them for at least five to seven days, he said, as well as have plans for any type of situation. Emergency responders likely will not be available immediately if a large disaster strikes, Smith added.

To help residents with such tools, the Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management has a program that does just that, called Kitsap Practices Responsible Emergency Preparedness or K-PREP. The program includes a comprehensive 70-page booklet that explains how to prepare for situations, from winter storms to flooding. KCDEM program coordinator for public education Elizabeth Ratliff said the county works with neighborhoods to become organized and work together on such efforts. More information can be attained by calling Ratliff at (360) 307-5874.

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