Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre declared the event a disaster. He authorized $15,000 in emergency funds. Working with all the available agencies at local, state and federal levels was needed, he said.
“Life safety is the immediate critical issue,” he said. “Keeping residents warm and safe comes first.”
Despite a serious demeanor the mayor was simply acting his part in the statewide joint exercise called “Alaska Shield 2012.” The exercise tested local officials’ abilities to respond to an extreme cold weather emergency, and there wasn’t an actual disaster or a large money fund.
About 20 participants gathered Feb. 10 at Soldotna’s emergency response center to simulate a loss in gas pressure during a cold snap. Officials from various agencies, such as utilities provider ENSTAR and Kenai Peninsula Borough employees, spent the entirety of two days coordinating their efforts. Volunteers huddled into Soldotna Middle School, the designated shelter, for a night as well.
Alaska’s harsh winter weather, challenging supply routes and remote communities strain emergency efforts during real life situations. Kenai Peninsula residents’ lives were disrupted in November 2011 when a windstorm severed electricity to more than 15,000 homes, according to a state press release.
The exercise’s planning began more than a year ago. Lessons learned from the windstorm were incorporated into response actions practiced as part of Alaska Shield 2012.
The borough’s focus during the exercise was providing information to the public and mass sheltering for area residents, said Eric Morhmann, KPB’s Emergency Services director.
James Baisden, Nikiski fire chief, managed participants during the exercise. At 1 p.m. he announced the situation and introduced various officials as people scattered around the response center setting up maps, laptops and telephone lines.
He said if a real world emergency occurred it would take precedent over the exercise.
Establishing shelters for the population was discussed. Local schools and Kenai National Guard Armory were obvious safe havens, but keeping residents warm also was a concern.
“If we have to use buses for warming people up we can do that,” Baisden said.
When the scenario for Alaska Shield 2012 was established, Morhmann said he realized his organization would have significant challenges.
“Emergency Services has worked out a number of issues and for others we’re still wondering what we would do,” he said a day before the exercise.
The designated public information officer (PIO) for the mock disaster began work on the first official press release, which explained the situation and informed residents that agencies were establishing shelters.
Throughout the next hour, logistics established proper methods of communication, both for the exercise and real world events; the PIO wrote messages to deliver to the public via rapid notify, a program capable of transmitting several hundred calls per minute to landline telephones in a designated area; and planning geared up for various scenarios of public outcry. Other officials also worked non-stop.
At 2 p.m., a couple acting the part of concerned residents entered the response center. They asked where they should go and what they should do to protect their home.
Marcus Meuller, KPB land management officer, offered tips and other available information to the residents. He then sent them on their way, as participants continued the exercise at full speed.
“More information should be available before nightfall,” he said.
At 2:30 p.m., Baisden announced Soldotna Middle School was the shelter, and school officials were working on making the building accessible.
After weather conditions were established an official noted the schools were short on drivers. Shortcomings played an important role in the exercise, Morhmann said.
Later in the evening, volunteers gathered at SMS to spend the night. A total of 100 cots were placed around the school’s gymnasium. Yellow, poly-foam blankets and plastic bags with necessities, such as toothpaste, wet wipes and a trash bag, were placed on the cots. Many of the cots sat unoccupied. There were about 40 people.
Gary Hindman and his family volunteered to spend the night. Sooner or later a real disaster will occur and it’s important to prepare, he said.
“I think (local and state agencies) are still working on it,” he said. “They’re not too bad, but there’s work that needs to be done. That’s the reason for these exercises.”
He said the public needs to educate themselves and their neighbors about emergency preparedness, and the best thing is getting more people involved. Hindman is a member of CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team.
AdriAnne and Sarah Newberry were commissioned to act out not-so-obvious health problems. AdriAnne would pretend to suffer a mild to moderate case of hypothermia while her sister would pretend to have frost bitten feet.
The catch was whether participants would catch on to the problems.
“It’s pretty easy to miss for some, because mild to moderate cases (of hypothermia) are nothing more than being sleepy, confused, maybe being a bit cold, other things,” AdriAnne said. “Stuff like that is really easy to gloss over and miss.”
Her family lives down Funny River Road, so they’re aware of the possibility of the road becoming impassable. The family keeps a food and water supply, she said.
Emergency Services sheltering plan designates schools as the area’s shelters, most of which are equipped with backup generators. Red Cross manages the shelters; CERT members assist in set up; and the school district provides food service, custodial staff and the facility, Morhmann said.
Secondary shelters are available, like senior citizen centers and churches.
Cold temperature and windstorm crises have affected the Peninsula in the past. A jökulhlaup, a glacial outburst flood, occurred in 2009, he said.
“There’s always flooding concerns based on the weather,” he said.
Hindman said his family has plans for emergencies like an evacuation.
“We’re pretty much prepared, but not totally prepared,” he said. “No one can ever be totally prepared.”