Elbert County Officials Prepared for Emergency, Residents Not

April 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Chelsea Toledo

Train Tracks running through Elberton, GA. Photo by Chelsea Toledo

Most people know to seek high ground during a flood, or to take shelter in the basement during a tornado. But would you know what to do if a train jumped the tracks and leaked dangerous chemicals?

Chuck Almond knows.

As Elbert County’s Emergency Services Director, Chuck Almond is an expert on foresight. When most people are preparing for swimsuit weather, Almond is getting bids from tree removal services whose crews would re-open vital roads in the wake of a tornado.

Severe weather is a major topic in Elbert County’s emergency operations plan, which focuses not on earthquakes and tsunamis, but on for disasters that a rural Georgia town is likely to face.

This is the type of forethought that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages all communities to exercise.

“We have a railway that comes right through the middle of town, so one of our biggest concerns is train derailment,” said Almond.

This scenario is particularly threatening, as freight trains running through Elberton can carry hazardous chemicals such as ANFO, an explosive compound used in granite mining.

If this happened, alarms would go out to Elberton residents.

“We use TV, radio, and we have warning sirens,” says Almond.

“We also use social networking sites such as Facebook, and we’re pushing now to implement a texting system,” he said.

Disaster specialists from law enforcement, emergency services, public health, and other Georgia agencies have input into emergency plans tailored to each county. Primary responsibility for disaster planning, however, rests with local officials.

Elbert County has a detailed emergency plan that fulfills most guidelines set out by the CDC.

The plan falls short, however, when it comes to community awareness of the plan and involvement in its execution.

The best plans, according to CDC, are developed by people who would be affected by community crisis. If this happens, people will feel it is their plan and they will pay attention to it.

Christina Singleton, the Associate Director of Science for the CDC, advocated the necessity of community involvement at a recent summit for Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

“We need to nudge those stakeholders to the table that are reflective of the community,” said Singleton.

But not all Elbert County citizens are on board with the county’s plans, or even aware of them. Tiffany Rucker and Susan Dunn, employees of Mr. Haircut in Athens and longtime Elberton residents, both feel unprepared to face disaster.

“I don’t think anybody in Elberton would know what to do,” said Rucker.

“We’re prepared at a level zero,” added Dunn.

There’s nothing wrong with sirens or Facebook alerts, but residents
would be better able to protect themselves and their families if they understood which organizations are responsible for emergency response.

Local health departments are on the front lines of any emergency that affects public health, for example, but most people don’t know that, according to Mary Champion, Elbert County’s head nurse.

“The community is not really aware of a lot of what public health does…It’s not just shots and birth control. We’re here to promote and prevent,” said Champion.

The role of health departments’ personnel and other first responders is spelled out in the local disaster plan, but the plan itself isn’t easy for interested residents to fine.

According to Almond, a copy of the plan is at the public library. On a recent visit, library staff could not locate the plan, nor were they aware of the document’s existence.

Like many other community guidelines, the strength of emergency response plans is derived from the careful planning of professionals such as Chuck Almond, but their effectiveness is greatly limited by public awareness and the willingness of the community to participate in planning and spreading such information.

FEMA administrator Rich Serino addressed that issue at the Public Health Preparedness Summit.

“We’re all in this together, no matter how you look at it. I know it sounds simplistic, but it’s true,” he said.

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