When hypothetical disaster strikes

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To most of Charlottesville, last Thursday may have seemed like a beautiful, sunny day. But inside UVA’s Zehmer Hall, it was like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie: Dams were stressed to the bursting point. Bridges were washed out. Six-foot-deep puddles dotted the soaked landscape. And then there was the propane tanker explosion.

It was pure, simulated mayhem at “Flood 2007,” this year’s version of an annual exercise conducted by the Emergency Operations Center, a joint association of emergency workers and personnel in the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and UVA. The group convened on Thursday morning to explore the aftermath and response to a hypothetical major storm in the area. After a morning briefing, the various department heads and officials split up into four groups: Policy, Emergency Services, Exercise Coordination and Control. It was the control group’s duty to, over the course of four hours, leak information about a developing emergency scenario to the other three groups.

This year, the control group had to provide details about a hypothetical flood, complete with stranded boaters, closed roads and undue stress on the South Fork Rivanna Dam. Albemarle Fire and Rescue Officer Scott Lambert led the control group, repeatedly exhorting his fellow group members to ad-lib as much as possible. When the time came to get the simulated higher-ups involved, more than a few controllers trotted out their best Mayor David Brown and Chairman Ken Boyd impressions.

Meanwhile, the police jokingly lamented the pretend cancellation of “Sesame Street Live” at the John Paul Jones Arena and expressed amused exasperation at the control group’s apparent love for exploding propane tankers—this wasn’t the first year such a blast was part of the exercise.

Still, the whole event wasn’t just a surreal exercise in bringing sarcastic emergency workers together. It was first and foremost an assessment of our local policies and procedures in the event of a disaster, and in that respect, it was a success. According to the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority’s estimates, the hypothetical evacuations ordered during the exercise were perfectly consistent with what would be necessary during such a flood. The only major snag all day came when someone in the control group inadvertently started a rumor that the dam had burst, a rumor that quickly became, er, “hypothetical fact,” though the actual destruction of the dam was not part of the intended exercise.

The drill suggested that should a heavy storm really stall over Charlottesville, the appropriate agencies know what to do. Unless it’s how to get to “Sesame Street Live.”

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