Macon Ready: Multiple mock disasters test Macon-Bibb readiness

Editor’s note: The Telegraph’s Liz Fabian is on special assignment with Macon-Bibb County leaders this week for FEMA’s disaster preparedness training in Maryland.

EMMITSBURG, Md. -- Tornadoes striking back to back tossed burning train wreckage in the river as a helicopter crashed into a hospital emergency room and a tractor-trailer flew into a historic downtown church.

Macon-Bibb County leaders knew they were heading for disaster this week at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, but no one had a clue about the extent of the two-day catastrophe and its aftermath.

As firefighters were working to free bodies from collapsed buildings, call takers in the Emergency Operations Center were bombarded with a bit of the bizarre and some bogus information.

There was the lady who was trapped in her house with her pet snakes and lizard. At the Macon Coliseum, 700 show dogs and handlers were seeking shelter. The circus was trying to contain lions, tigers and chimps as the river was rising.

“I don’t say it can never happen, because the minute you do, it does,” said Shannondor Marquez, a FEMA training specialist.

While 62 Macon-Bibb leaders and representatives from community organizations were answering phones, FEMA instructors were evaluating their every move in the EOC, policy room and mock TV studio.

During news conferences aired live over televisions in the rooms, a FEMA instructor posing as a news anchor hounded leaders about why people were in a school when classes were canceled after the first twister.

EMA Deputy Director Spencer Hawkins and PIO Chris Floore were cautious about releasing information about casualties.

“It’s better to be late and right than early and wrong,” Hawkins said in a debriefing.

Based on their existing level of preparedness, Macon-Bibb County was selected for the valuable training as dozens of other communities’ applications were rejected.

All of the make-believe drama, no matter how far-fetched, evoked real emotions for the people involved in the tense exercise that covered three days of classes.

Thursday, the trainees pretended it was two weeks after the disaster.

“While you’re still responding, you need to plan recovery,” said instructor Kenneth Hill, who is assistant public works director for Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Most communities are really bad at recovery,” Marquez said. “Small business doesn’t have the liquidity to come back.”

Government officials can get caught up dispatching resources, crunching numbers and finding money to pay for it -- and can lose sight of human suffering.

At the close of the exercise, Mayor Robert Reichert and representatives from other public and private entities hosted a town hall meeting for the public to hear the latest on recovery efforts.

It quickly escalated into confrontations with distressed and frustrated folks.

“The faster we can get them to normalcy, the faster they recover. So that’s why we ask the tough questions,” said Pamela Collins, a FEMA instructor who was posing as residents asking questions about schools reopening, money allocations and help for her business.

“After a period of time in the recovery, we forget we are dealing with people’s lives,” she said.

Marquez, who has more than 30 years’ experience in responding to crisis situations, said: “I have yet to be at one of these (meetings) that didn’t become heated.”

Toward the end, some in the back started shouting, which a stress expert said can happen as people come through traumatic experiences.

Throughout this week’s training, mistakes made were constructively called out.

Marquez said all the people of Bibb County can benefit from lessons learned at the Emergency Management Institute.

“I think it’s hard to hear where we have gaps and weaknesses, and when you’re in an environment like this, it’s a safe place for us to really look at where to make improvements to help our community.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303., or findnote>