Watching the video of the tornado hitting the St Louis Airport seemed a disconnect for many Americans. We have faith in the power of our civilization and subconsciously hope that mankind’s greatest structures are immune to the ravages of Mother Nature. And yet, these monuments to modern science, like all of our constructions, are just dots on a map with probabilities of enduring a similar fate as the St. Louis Airport.
Directly between St. Louis and Memphis on the Ten Mile Creek and the Cane Creek lies the city of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a historic community of 17,000 residents. Since its founding in the early 1800s, the town was regularly flooded by the Black River, until in 1948 the Clearwater Dam was built to control the river’s flow. However, just three years after storms flooded the city in 2008, another series of storms inundated the area with 15 inches of rain swelling the Black River and breaking the community’s levee in several locations, causing an evacuation of 1,000 homes in South Poplar Bluff.
Poplar Bluff was the dot on the map in 2011 that took the brunt of record rains. A year ago, it was Nashville that lived through devastation as nature picked this dot on the map to witness a thousand year flood. As you read this, there are several other communities that are praying their dot on the map escapes the deluge that Poplar Bluff and Nashville experienced, knowing that their devastation would be infinitely times worse.
While travelling through America, promoting my ideas for a national rapid response force, I discussed with one state leader the issue of a dam that has too significant a potential to fail, and that has been the subject of Army Corps reconstruction. However, if a rain deluge were to strike the river basin prior to completion of the project, the dam would have a high probability of rupture, endangering tens of thousands of people downstream. Within 24 hours of dam failure the lives of several thousand patients in multiple nursing homes and hospitals would be lost. The potential for loss of life due to this dam exposure is great, but it is not the only dam with such high risks and this is not the only state so exposed. Similar conditions exist in at least a dozen other dots on the map.
The technology and capability to plan for and respond to a dam failure in time to move all of these patients to safety exists. However, the capability does not currently exist within this state or any other. What I learned through bringing together America’s national private ambulance response coalition, HELP, is that to effectively respond to such grave potential disasters, the resources of the nation must be committed and readied well before the storm, and American communities could use such a resource.
America can create a rapid response team capable of moving thousands of patients within a yet unknown 24 hour notice window. We just haven’t been given this task and this requirement thus far. The current national evacuation response paradigm of a 4 day ramp up and arrival sequence of assets that are then given general priorities and assigned specific tasks based on assessments and in the field situational awareness and analysis will not work for these at risk communities. A new paradigm must be envisioned.
To prepare for such a known threat takes the combination of modern technology, logistics, and communications. It also requires the elimination of historical, jurisdictional, operational, and financial impediments that together significantly reduce the effectiveness of national support.
When I was asked to create a capability to evacuate an entire neonate hospital in 24 hours using our HELP program, our team accomplished the goal, but only by circumventing many of the impediments that exist in America’s mass medical evacuation capability today. A high priority for our nation’s emergency industry should be to commit to banding together to identify, prioritize, plan for and mitigate these critical impediments at the local through the federal level. To maximize saving of lives during a 24 hour dam breach event or during the 72 hour golden hours of a large scale disaster requires a commitment to this approach at all levels of government and within all sectors of private industry medical and emergency response.
Saving more lives requires a multi-industry and multi-agency pre-planned and coordinated response that anticipates the reaction of the public within the disaster zone and accelerates actions de-centrally according to those plans. Pre-hospital EMS, frontline hospitals, inter-facility ambulances, regional hospitals, local and state emergency managers all have roles that can be defined and authorized long before an event happens. With common vision, goals, information and communication, they each act independently and interdependently in an accelerated response.
I have discussed a process for reaching this level of capability with a majority of state leaders and while most have been receptive, many have found the idea of embarking on this path a bit overwhelming at this stage in America’s development. One reason is that many of the impediments at the local and state level are derived from impediments at the federal level. To solve the next generation of accelerated response will require federal involvement. To create a national rapid response to meet this rapid mass medical evacuation challenge and other similar emergency vulnerabilities will require the commitment of a broad range of leadership. It is time our federal and state leaders commit to get on with this essential task.