FRANKFORT — The scenario is frightening: Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians, many in far-flung rural areas, left in dire circumstances by a major natural disaster. Cut off, they have no electric power and no way to call for help, and all roads are blocked.
It's a scenario Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, the head of Kentucky's Division of Emergency Management, has planned for in the event of a major earthquake. Experts have warned that such a quake could occur along Western Kentucky's New Madrid fault.
But it so happens it's eerily similar to what occurred Jan. 27, when, instead of the earth shaking, a brutal winter storm encased much of the state in ice up to an inch thick. The state's worst natural disaster in years left a record 769,000 without electricity, killed 30 people and sent thousands to shelters.
So Heltzel used a statewide earthquake training held last March as a rescue blueprint for the ice storm, and credits that preparation with saving lives from the storm.
"Lifesaving, that's priority one for us, so that's what we were able to do," Heltzel said. "It wasn't perfect, but it was much better because we had plans that we could execute."
One step the state took was to call up the entire Kentucky National Guard to help go door-to-door and check on residents. Guardsmen are credited with rescuing an elderly couple suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in their house and helping save a group of teenagers whose car had plunged into a water-filled ditch.
"It's near the worst-case scenario," Heltzel said of the ice storm. "I'm not sure I could come up with a scenario that would be much worse. From an infrastructure standpoint, it equals what we expect to have with New Madrid."
For example, communication was cut off or limited in the western half of the state for days, and Kentucky's power grid was obliterated, he said.
The New Madrid fault runs from southern Illinois to northeastern Arkansas and produces hundreds of small quakes each year, but most go unnoticed without scientific equipment. A series of big earthquakes estimated at magnitude 7.0 or greater, however, hit the region in 1811 and 1812, and are considered by the U.S. Geological Survey to be the largest ever in the United States.
Experts say an earthquake of that magnitude today would cause widespread destruction.
Gov. Steve Beshear said Heltzel has been "an invaluable resource."
"His ability to work together and coordinate efforts with county, state and federal officials has ensured that the most assistance possible has reached hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians in need," the governor said.
Heltzel was commissioned in the Kentucky National Guard in 1979 out of Eastern Kentucky University. Beshear appointed him director of Kentucky's Division of Emergency Management in July.
Two months later, remnants of Hurricane Ike brought hurricane-force winds to Kentucky, leaving 600,000 electric customers without power, a state record at the time.
Then came late January's ice storm.
With communications largely down and many roads impassable, state officials were cut off from much of Western Kentucky during the first days after the storm, Heltzel said. He credits county officials who were first to respond — and who set up shelters — with keeping the death toll from being much higher.
"We'd be talking hundreds of lives, potentially, and that is directly attributable to those county emergency directors who stepped up in the middle of this thing," Heltzel said. "The real heroes of this — the initial heroes — are those guys at the county level."
Still, Heltzel says the state needs to upgrade some of its tools for dealing with statewide disasters. County emergency operation centers throughout the state should have satellite communication, a generator and a store room stocked with ready-to-eat meals, he said. The state also needs a statewide shelter plan, Heltzel said.
And, the state's emergency operations center — first-rate technology in the 1970s — could use some upgrades, he said. It needs to be bigger and more technologically aligned, Heltzel said.
"The reality is that today's environment and the amount of things that have to be coordinated greatly outstrips what we ever thought about in the 1970s," Heltzel said.