Flooding in the Island Harbor area and people who didn’t evacuate in time, people trapped inside a large retail store after a vehicle crashed into the building. and severe weather, all in the same day was the scenario Wednesday for a tabletop exercise conducted by the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management.
Bringing together representatives of law enforcement agencies, fire and emergency services personnel plus an assortment of representatives from city, county and state agencies, the exercise served to create a working plan in how to deal with one or more disasters at the same time.
“This exercise is an opportunity for us to take all our ideas and put them together in case something happens,” County Judge Dutch King said. “We need to be prepared and have all our bases covered because a lot of people from Pine Bluff and Jefferson County are going to depend on us.”
Kurwin White, a private contractor who was hired by the county to facilitate the exercise, stressed the importance of working together, telling the participants they needed “to fight the problem, not the scenario, and agree to disagree.”
The exercise scenario began with a fear of flooding in the Island Harbor area, brought on by heavy rains, with the Arkansas River expected to crest. At the same time, the National Weather Service indicates conditions are favorable for severe weather, including tornadoes.
By the early afternoon, an automobile with one occupant crashes into the glass front of a large retail store, with people inside and out diving for cover and the roof partially collapsing.
Within two minutes, the 911 call center is inundated with calls, and two minutes after that, the first responders are on their way, arriving within another minute and establishing a command post.
While a call goes out for additional emergency responders, officials are also monitoring the weather, and law enforcement agencies are trying to maintain a perimeter at the store as news crews arrive to report on the incident.
Predictions are that the Arkansas River will rise to more than 47 feet that day, a level not seen since 1990, and at Island Harbor, some people who refused a voluntary evacuation are trapped.
At that point, White stopped the scenario, asking participants to think about how the events affected their agencies.
Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Quarles said Wednesday afternoon after the exercise was over that it identified some areas that agencies want to go back and take a look at.
As an example, she said the State Health Department wants to see the shelters that the office has identified as being available in the event of an emergency to ensure that they’re adequate and meet state standards.
Quarles said because the office receives federal and state grants, it is required to participate in three training exercises such as the one held Wednesday.
“One of them our county does and we support other counties for the other two,” she said.
White said he would take the feedback from all the agencies involved and prepare an after-action report which should be available in 60 to 90 days.
“We want to see how to make things better and take care of the public’s need to get out of harm’s way,” King said.