Presented with support from:

GAR Foundation

By WKSU's Julie Grant

Friday, February 24, 2006

After the attacks of September eleventh, Ohio started preparing for terrorism and natural disasters on a regional basis. Emergency responders, health officials, and hospitals in each of eight regions now meet regularly with each other and with state officials. As part of the WKSU series "Beyond the Limits: The Regional View" we look at some of the potential threats and how Northern Ohio is preparing to respond...

     


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The Cleveland Clinic Garage Can be Transformed in an Emergency
(J. Grant)


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Shower heads in Cleveland Clinic Garage
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View of Davis Besse Power Plant from Port Clinton Shoreline
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Ottawa County Sheriff Robert Bratton
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John Mason, Portage County Emergency Managment
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Davis Besse Nuclear Plant Close Up
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First Energy, which owns nuclear plants in the region, is based in downtown Akron
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      Windows Media / MP3

Disaster response planning has changed dramatically in the past five years. Dr. Frank Peacock is in charge of emergency response at the Cleveland Clinic.

PEACOCK...BEFORE SEPT.11, DISASTER PLANNING WAS RELATIVELY SIMPLE. IT WAS LIKE FOUR GUYS MEETING IN THE BASEMENT ONCE OR TWICE A YEAR, WITH NO BUDGET AND NOBODY REALLY WORRIED ABOUT IT.

Today he says disaster planning is like a spider over the whole hospital, with legs in nearly every department.

PEACOCK... IT WENT FROM FOUR GUYS IN A ROOM ONCE OR TWICE A YEAR TO MEETINGS WEEKLY, 30-40 PEOPLE INVOLVED IN THE COMMITTEE.

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Peacock says the Clinic has spent more than a million dollars to prepare for a large-scale disaster, like a chemical or nuclear accident. The garage space where emergency vehicles drop off patients can be locked down at a moment's notice and turned into a shower space.

PEACOCK...WE HAVE A COMMAND CENTER WITH A BUTTON IN IT. WE PUSH THE BUTTON AND EVERY DOOR IN THE CLINIC LOCKS. AND YOU CAN'T COME OR GO OUT OF THE INSTITUTION WITHOUT GOING THROUGH THIS SPACE RIGHT HERE.

But Peacock says the Clinic could be quickly overwhelmed by a surge of people needing medical attention in a large-scale disaster, like an earthquake or radiological incident. The thirty hospitals in Northeast Ohio now meet regularly to discuss how they would work together in different emergency scenarios. Hospitals have also started talking with other agencies about preparedness.

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Today a director from the Akron Regional Hospital Association is meeting with the regional planner for the Summit County Health Department and the Regional Medical Response System Coordinator for Northeast Central Ohio. RMRS Coordinator Boyd Marsh says they've only recently started sitting at the table together.

MARSH... THIS ALL SOUNDS LIKE THINGS WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING, BUT IN FACT, THAT WASN'T THE CASE. EVERYBODY HAD THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES BY LAW AND BY REGULATION AND ALL THESE OTHER THINGS, AND THE OPPORTUNITY WASN'T THERE TO WORK TOGETHER AND IT IS NOW.

So, if a flu pandemic hits Northeast Ohio, the federal government is in charge of providing vaccines. Public health departments would be responsible to set up clinics to dispense those vaccines to the public. Marsh says everyone needs to be working off the same plan.

MARSH... PLUS, BUILDING THE COMMUNICATION SYSTEM SO THE POLICE CAN TALK TO THE FIRE AND FIRE CAN TALK TO EMA AND EMA CAN TALK TO THE HEALTH DEPT AND THE HEALTH DEPT CAN TALK TO THE HOSPITALS. THERE'S GOT TO BE A COMMUNICATION SYSTEM THAT WORKS AND HAS SOME COMMONALITY. SO YOU'VE GOT IT WORKING, NOW YOU'VE GOT TO GET PEOPLE TO USE IT AND TO PRACTICE IT. WELL THAT'S THE SAME THING FOR EVERYTHING.

Different agencies and coordinating groups here hold regular drills to practice their skills and assess their readiness for a disaster. Tracy Barnett is regional coordinator for public health agencies in Summit County.

BARNETT...EVERY TIME YOU GO TO PLAN YOU HAVE TO REALIZE THAT, YOU EXERCISE THEM, AND YOU FIND A MILLION AND ONE GAPS AND YOU HAVE TO FILL THOSE GAPS. AND THEN YOU EXERCISE THEM AGAIN, AND YOU FIND A MILLION AND ONE GAPS AND YOU HAVE TO FILL THEM. AND THIS IS SOMETHING THAT WE TRADITIONALLY DIDN'T DO.

On August 14, 2003, the city of Cleveland realized how ill-prepared it was for a large-scale power outage. Fifty-million people in the Northeastern U-S lost power that day. At that time, then Mayor Jane Campbell announced that Cleveland was having a hard time supplying water because the city's pumping stations had no back up generators.

JANE CAMPBELL... THE CLEVELAND WATER SYSTEM PROVIDES WATER NOT ONLY TO THE CITY PROPER, BUT TO OUR SUBURBAN COMMUNITIES AS WELL. MOST OF OUR HIGHER LEVEL EASTERN SUBURBAN COMMUNITIES HAVE ALREADY LOST WATER. CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, SHAKER HEIGHTS, UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS THOSE AREAS.

A million and a half customers in the region were left with dry taps, some for 16 hours. The power outage also idled three sewage treatment plants, which dumped 65 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage into Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. Mayor Campbell declared a state of emergency and called in the state and federal governments to help. That evening, Akron connected its fire hydrants to some communities affected by Cleveland's water troubles.

Local fire departments from around the state also provided resources. John Mason is with the Emergency Management Agency in rural Portage County.

MASON...OUT HERE WERE USED TO PUMPING WATER OUT OF PONDS OR LAKES AND THEN USING THEM FOR FIRE SUPPRESSION. THEY DON'T DO THAT IN THE BIG CITY. YOU THINK OF THE CITY, THE BIG CITY FIREFIGHTER, COMING DOWN HERE AND TEACHING US SOMETHING. BUT IT REALLY WAS WE WENT THERE AND SAID, OKAY, THIS IS HOW YOU DO THIS GUYS.

The power instability also caused nine nuclear plants in the U-S and Canada to automatically shut down, including the Perry Plant in Lake County. Davis Besse in Ottawa County, between Cleveland and Toledo was already off-line because of safety issues. FirstEnergy owns both of those nuclear plants and each presents an array of potential radiological hazards to the region. After September eleventh, the most obvious is a terrorist attack on one of the reactors. FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Schneider says the plants are designed to take an impact from a plane.

SCHNEIDER... IF A PLANE WERE TO CRASH INTO THE SITE, THE BUILDING THAT HOUSES THE REACTOR, WHICH IS THE MOST VITAL PART OF THE PLANT, IS MADE OUT OF CONCRETE IT'S 2-3 FEET THICK REINFORCED WITH REBAR, PLUS THERE'S A STEEL LINER INSIDE OF THAT. SO THERE'S BEEN TESTS THAT SHOW IF AN AIRLINER WOULD HIT THE REACTOR BUILDING, WHICH WOULD BE VERY HARD TO DO TO BEGIN WITH BECAUSE IT'S SMALL, IT'S NOT LIKE THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, IT'S A MUCH MUCH SMALLER BUILDING IN COMPARISON THAT THE BUILDING WOULD STAY IN TACT AND THE REACTOR WOULD BE PROTECTED.

In the case of a radioactive catastrophe at Davis Besse, emergency responders in Ottawa County would be in charge of keeping the public informed and deciding whether the area should be evacuated within a ten-mile radius. Beyond that, the state would have responsibility. But emergency officials would have to rely on the word of FirstEnergy about the extent of the danger. The company recently admitted ignoring a danger, an acid leak that nearly ate through the reactor vessel's 6-inch thick steel cap. FirstEnergy agreed to pay 28 million dollars in fines and acknowledged that workers at Davis Besse concealed the boric acid hole that had been growing for years. Still, Schneider says any nuclear incident is highly unlikely.

SCHNEIDER...EM HMM..THE DAVIS BESSE INCIDENT WAS UNFORTUNATE. WE HAVE TO REMEMBER IN THAT WHOLE SITUATION, THE PLANT DID SHUT DOWN SAFELY. THERE WAS NO IMPACT TO THE LOCAL COMMUNITY OR THE ENVIRONMENT. OPERATIONS WERE NOT WHERE WE WANTED THEM TO BE. WE'VE MADE MANY CHANGES, THAT INCLUDE PEOPLE, PROCEDURES, PROGRAMS AT THE PLANT TO ENSURE THAT DOESN'T HAPPEN AGAIN.

The sheriff in Ottawa County says officer training completely changed after September eleventh to deal with a possible terrorist attack at the nuclear plant and elsewhere. Ottawa County is home to more than a hundred marinas. Sheriff Robert Bratton says his office has a tough time monitoring the coastline.

BRATTON...WHAT YOU'RE SEEING IS IN DETROIT, COMING ACROSS, CUSTOMS IS CLAMPING DOWN. THEY'RE PUSHING A LITTLE OF THAT INTO THE TOLEDO AREA, AND NOW TOLEDO IS STARTING TO REALLY FOCUS. WE'RE THE NEXT STOP.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which is in charge of Homeland Security along the shoreline, says it has no intention of fencing off segments of Lake Erie. But it has improved relations with Canada to cooperatively stop illegal border crossings. The coast guard, hospitals, emergency responders and others all say they are better prepared today then they were a few years ago for a large-scale disaster, in part because they are working regionally. But Hurricane Katrina showed everyone how useless plans can be without good communication and clear authority.