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Becoming prepared for the worst
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Great Bend First United Methodist Church members attended disaster response training in March. Basic Disaster Training is the first step in a multifaceted program offered by the Great Plains Area Disaster Response team through UMCOR. Saturday, members will attend a day long Early Response training that will prepare them to help with relief and recovery efforts around the state. From left to right: Andrea Maxwell, Jean Aycock, Pastor Lenny Maxwell, Nancy Proffitt, Linda VanSandt - photo by VERONICA COONS, Great Bend Tribune

Tornado Facts
(Courtesy of FEMA)

Quick facts you should know about tornadoes:

    * They may strike quickly, with little or no warning.
    * They may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms in the funnel.
    * The average tornado moves Southwest to Northeast, but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction.
    * The average forward speed of a tornado is 30 mph, but may vary from stationary to 70 mph.
    * Tornadoes can accompany tropical storms and hurricanes as they move onto land.
    * Waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water.
    * Tornadoes are most frequently reported east of the Rocky Mountains during spring and summer months.
    * Peak tornado season in the southern states is March through May; in the northern states, it is late spring through early summer.
    * Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., but can occur at any time.

First United Methodist Church of Great Bend will host Early Responder training Saturday, April 27 in the church basement.  Early Response Teams help remove debris and make temporary repairs, reduce future damage and help to make buildings safe and reduce health hazards, observe and report victims needs and begin a caring ministry of listeners that help victims begin to heal.  

“Our mission team set a goal to get as many people trained as possible for disaster response,” said Pastor Lenny Maxwell. “This will allow us to move in as soon as the authorities will allow us to in the event of a natural disaster.”

The Basic Disaster Response Training was held Saturday, March 23. These sessions are the first steps in a series of training sessions that will prepare helpers to assist victims in the Kansas area and elsewhere.  

“It’s important to think about your disaster plan, before disaster strikes,” said Linda Van Sandt, the Kansas Area Disaster Response trainer for the church’s Great Plains Area Disaster Response.

Some typical Kansas disasters include tornado, flood, ice storm, drought, fire, hail, straight-line winds and blizzards.  Tornadoes, however, are often the most destructive, with little to no warning beforehand.  And while they can happen any time of year, the number of sightings goes up significantly in May and June, VanSandt said.

Preparing for disaster helps to reduce the loss of life.  VanSandt provided statistics that tracked the number of tornados and the corresponding loss of life from 2007, when the Greensburg F5 tornado destroyed that city to 2010.  In 2007, 137 tornadoes were reported in Kansas, with 14 deaths, 11 coming from the Greensburg tornado.  The next year, 215 tornados were reported, with only five lives lost.  In 2009 and 2010, far fewer tornadoes were reported, 103 and 94 respectively.  No loss of life was reported.  VanSandt attributed the declining numbers with a heightened priority by local governments and the public for creating disaster preparedness plans.

Three stages
VanSandt described three stages of a disaster.  Stage one is when Emergency Responders focus on rescue efforts.  This generally lasts for the first three days immediately following the disaster event.

“After three days, rescue efforts become search and recover efforts,” VanSandt said.

Stage two is the relief effort, and at that time, basic responders are asked to come help.  They will assist for the next 100 days to a year, depending on the extent of damage.  Typically, they will help with sorting through debris and helping victims to reclaim personal items, operate shelters and be available to assist in other ways.  Recovery, the final stage of a disaster, can last for years.  

“For some people, it can take several months or years to achieve a new state of normal,” VanSandt said.

One of the aims of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is to have volunteers ready to be among the first in and the last out of the area.  They work closely with several other agencies, like the Red Cross, the United Way and the Salvation Army, to efficiently and effectively help with disaster recovery.  Several other churches offer training and provide volunteer responders too.  In the event of a major disaster, they work together to ensure resources are put where they are needed, VanSandt said.

What to expect if disaster strikes locally
In Barton County, the person everyone will likely turn to in the event of a major disaster is Emergency Management Director Amy Miller.  It will be her job to direct emergency responders, like police, fire, EMTs, and public works employees in efforts to make the area safe before volunteers will be allowed to begin relief efforts.  

Miller said travel often becomes impossible in an area hit by a tornado, with roads blocked from fallen trees and power lines.  On top of that, it’s easy to become lost.

“There were people in Hoisington that had lived there for 60 years or more who became lost because all the houses, trees, and street signs were gone  following the tornado that went through there in 2001,” Miller said.  “As humans, we depend on landmarks to get around.”

Miller said the county disaster plan is not a neat checklist of what to do when disaster strikes.  That wouldn’t be feasible, she said, because it’s impossible to know the impact of a disaster ahead of time.  It’s more a guideline with legal ramifications of who needs to be contacted, and who has what resources, should a disaster recovery needs to be activated.  

Meanwhile, if a disaster affects you and your family, it’s important to have a plan, and to plan to stay put until word spreads about where to go, and safe routes to get there.

“That’s why it’s important to have that battery powered radio handy,” Miller said.  In addition, it’s important to have a mobile disaster preparedness kit handy in a safe place, and that everyone in the family knows where it is and where to meet.  

“If you don’t have a safe place in your home, make plans with a neighbor,” she advised.  “There are no public tornado shelters in the city.”  

Attendees at the training learned it’s important to be patient, because initially, information will be slow in coming.  Disaster response needs have to be assessed before volunteers and donations can be asked for, VanSandt said.

Miller agrees.  “In reality, it’s nothing like in the movies where rescue efforts begin within 15 minutes.”

Avoiding the ‘disaster after the disaster’
As news reaches outside the affected community following a disaster, there is often an outpouring of help from the public. One lesson learned from recent disasters in Greensburg and Joplin, Mo., are that donations can sometimes overwhelm a community, and many of the things donated are not needed.  

“This is not the time to clean out your closets,” VanSandt said.  What many don’t realize is some groups, like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, distribute clothing vouchers to disaster victims, and have clothes on hand already.  She shared images of parking lots full of donated items, dumped by would-be helpers, which were exposed to the weather and eventually hauled to landfills.  “It’s important to avoid the disaster after the disaster.”

Bottled water, too, is a popular donated item.  VanSandt said that this water will go rancid if there is no where to store it, which is often the case.  Toxins from the plastic bottles begin to contaminate the water when it sits in the sunlight.  

“Without sounding ungrateful, money is probably the most helpful thing people can donate when disaster strikes,” she said.  

Other things that come in handy immediately are work gloves and construction grade black plastic bags and tarps.  These items help with the recovery effort, and help to protect property until repairs can begin--and that can sometimes take weeks or even months.  

Lending ears as well as hands
But one of the most important roles volunteers learned of is that of being available to listen to victims, who need to be able to tell their stories in order to begin the recovery process.  Keeping an eye out for those who prey on victims is also important.  The elderly are at the top of the list of vulnerable populations when disaster strikes.  Children too, are at risk, especially if parents are suffering the effects of loss.  Often, the event can be the cause of a family falling into poverty and hopelessness.  

Basic Disaster and Early Response Training are the first two steps in a multi-faceted program offered by UMCOR.  It is required in order to advance through the rest of the classes.   First United Methodist Church, Great Bend, will host Early Response Team training on April 27 for those who wish to continue to the next level.  Early Response Teams help remove debris and make temporary repairs, reduce future damage and help to make buildings safe and reduce health hazards, observe and report victims needs and begin a caring ministry of listeners that help victims begin to heal.  

Web resources:
Where to seek shelter:
Checklist for becoming prepared and creating a disaster kit:
First-aid kit suggestions:
For the disabled and those with special needs: