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State prepares for disaster

FRANKFORT — Whether it's tornadoes, torrential rain or ice-encrusted trees and power lines, weather emergencies seem to hit Kentucky all the time.

But state officials also want to be prepared for the possibility of a disease outbreak, a hazardous chemical spill or a campus crisis.

That's why Brig. Gen. John Heltzel, the head of Kentucky's Division of Emergency Management, is going to practice new scenarios this summer and ramp up rescuers' response times.

"I'm trying to exercise things we've not done before," Heltzel said in a recent interview. "Learn all the lessons ahead of time so that if we ever have to do it, it works well."

Emergency management officials throughout the state were put to the test already this year when a massive January ice storm paralyzed much of Kentucky. The storm encased large swaths of the state in a coating of ice, downing trees and power lines and knocking out electricity to more than 700,000 Kentucky customers.

Communications in the western half of the state were crippled, and roads were blocked. Many people were without drinking water and heat and were forced to seek shelter from the storm, which was blamed for 36 deaths.

Gov. Steve Beshear mobilized the Kentucky Army National Guard and called in help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rescue crews from at least 10 states also brought in aid.

Heltzel said emergency officials in Kentucky relied on statewide earthquake training held last March as a rescue blueprint to handle the immediate recovery. Now, while memories of what worked and what didn't are still fresh, Heltzel is preparing authorities for the possibility of dangerous threats of a different sort.

Disease outbreaks

Planning for an influenza pandemic sets up the state to respond to other widespread outbreaks of any communicable disease, said Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, director of Kentucky's division of epidemiology and health planning.

"We're trying to learn from history," Humbaugh said. "It's just a matter of when will it happen, and no one really knows when it's going to be. The idea of the exercise is to be better prepared."

A widespread outbreak would have the potential to infect up to 1.2 million people in Kentucky, and in the worst-case scenario, could kill about 25,000 people, said T.J. Sugg, an epidemiological response coordinator for the state. Normally, Kentucky experiences about 40,000 deaths in a year, Sugg said.

During training scheduled for August, Heltzel is also setting up an exercise that would allow emergency officials to respond to a hypothetical campus shooter who sets off a dirty bomb in a crowded area.

Heltzel said the state needs to ensure it has solutions it can rehearse, such as how to decontaminate large areas where people throughout the state will go for shelter and how to dispatch help throughout the state if roads are blocked.

Kentucky has a large rail grid and five major interstates that crisscross the state. Heltzel said one of his prime concerns is the possibility of large-scale hazardous spills anywhere in the state.

"The No. 1 thing that keeps me awake at night that I really worry about is hazardous materials," Heltzel said. "I can't tell you when these things are going to happen. I just know the potential is there every single day."

Heltzel said the planned exercise will allow authorities to review how to handle large death tolls and decontaminate large areas.

"I want the preparedness level to be ramped up significantly," Heltzel said. "We're going to get there. Even if we don't nail it 100 percent, whatever we rehearse, we will be better off."

To that end, Heltzel said, he's enlisted cooperation from Kentucky's business community as well as state police and first responders. Local governments are also joining in.

Campus scenario

Keith Slugantz, the emergency management director for Woodford County, said plans have already been in place and have been practiced in the past. But Slugantz said the operation being planned for August is "probably the biggest" that's been scheduled.

"The intent is to allow each of the counties in Kentucky to practice how they would handle a large-scale event," Slugantz said. "There's been a lot of work done for a number of years to get ready for events like this. It's a way for us to practice and see if there's any holes we've overlooked and kind of fill those gaps."

The campus scenario is being planned at Midway College and will take place during the week of the overall pandemic exercise.

Counties will have an opportunity to sign up and to participate beginning in early June, Heltzel said.

The ice storm brought into focus the reality that Kentucky can very suddenly be in the middle of a massive statewide disaster. And the state needs to be ready in case of a larger disaster. If a pandemic or major earthquake occurs in Kentucky, the federal government and surrounding states might have other regional priorities, he said.

"Everybody likes to talk about this as a once-in-a-lifetime event. I can't think that way," Heltzel said. "I have to think we've got to be ready tomorrow for whatever comes up. And if one of these centers of government knows how to respond to a pandemic, everything else will be something we can take more or less in stride."