Awaiting Armageddon, Part 2: Government Readiness

Megan Lynch (@MLynchOnAir)

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – If we suffer widespread disaster in this region, you’d better hope you’ve made some preparations.

“You will be your own responsibility,” says Nick Gragnani of St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS).

And we won’t know how well disaster plans work until something catastrophic happens.

Generators power rows of emergency vehicles, including a decontamination truck, “and it would be set up with trash cans and stuff, so they could take all their contaminated clothing off,” says Cory Ellis with St. Clair County Special Emergency Services. “Obviously, they could take a shower and rinse off, and then we could put a decon solution in there to get the contamination off of them.”

Inside a nearby conference center, first responders, medical personnel and police run through a mock scenario.

As the storyline unfolds, a van explodes near Busch Stadium, and suspects flee the scene wearing gas masks. Eventually, a chain of interconnected attacks stretch across the region leaving mass casualties.

St. Louis city medical examiner Dr. Michael Graham explains what happens after: “We can store about 85 bodies, at any given time, without resorting to rack systems or to some sort of stacking system.”

Agencies say they try to prepare for every possibility.

“I want to point out that, the Bi-State region is vulnerable to a variety of hazards including flooding, severe storms, pandemic illness, earthquakes and terrorism. Each of these hazards has the potential to cause catastrophic losses of life and property,” says Gragnani, of St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS).

STARRS is an umbrella group that, for more than a decade, has been working to improve planning, coordination, communication and response.

KMOX sat down with Gragnani in his downtown St. Louis office.

While agencies are interconnected, Gragnani says they can’t handle every need if there’s a major catastrophe.

“The incident that has occurred is going to impact such a wide area that the first reponders are going to be dealing with a lot of big things, and may not be able to get to your home and find out if you’re OK,” he says.

Gragnani estimates as many as 75 percent of the region’s residents have done some prep-work, “and if you do the math, with almost 2 million people in this region – that’s still a lot of people that we’re going to have to address.”

He says you need to figure out what you would do — “Be prepared to be alone for 72 hours.”

Bryan Whitaker, with the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency, digs through a backpack holding a utility knife, mosquito net, heavy duty work gloves and rain ponchos. It’s one of the survival bags each employee is given to get them through the first few days of any disaster.

Sitting nearby, St. Clair County EMA Director Herb Simmons says what weighs most on his mind  — the possibility of an earthquake.

“How do you prepare for something of that magnitude?” he asks. “But we try. If we could pinpoint exactly where and when it was going to happen then we’d be better off, but right now, it’s a roll of the dice.”

He places his hand on a tall stack of thick binders — the procedures in place for every imagineable scenario. Simmons says the agency is focused on training and planning.

“We have certain equipment that is now strategically placed throughout the county. Before, it was kind of all like, everything in one basket.”

It’s not just what happens right after the ground shakes, or an attack comes, or a storm hits — it’s what unfolds in the hours and days after and how people react.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell people not to worry, because I can’t predict what the average individual is going to do,” Simmons says. “There are an element of citizens out there that will panic, and then you have the opportunists out there that will take advantage.”

And people who are arming themselves for unrest.

More on that in Part Three of Awaiting Armageddon.

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