Officials get crack at Practice disaster

As officials from the state, city, county, UVA and FEMA sat at tables in fleeces and jackets, munching on potato chips, a woman stood up and said, "Today is May 15. The event has already happened." Behind was a screen with the words "Flood 2007 Table Top Exercise" projected across it.

Previous coverage:

When hypothetical disaster strikes
Flood scenario tests local officials’ ability to respond

The event in question wasn’t your typical disaster: Woolen Mills had been flooded, a dam had burst, a propane tanker had hit Free Bridge and exploded. Reports of a tornado touching down at UVA had yet to be confirmed. But then the situation grew grim: UVA’s graduation was scheduled for that week. Roughly 30,000 extra people were in town.

The event itself was purely hypothetical, an exercise of the Charlottesville Area Emergency Preparedness Initiative. And anyhow, the area emergency operation center had already handled the response operations back in May (the actual month of May, not the disastrous, hypothetical month currently in front of officials).

"Our response is over, and now we’re in to the recovery mode," said Marge Thomas, the area’s Emergency Management Coordinator, as she stood outside the room in UVA’s Zehmer Hall where area officials were taking their lunch breaks. "It’s like what’s going on still in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. They’re still recovering, and it’s very expensive."

The room was dotted with officials from various area agencies: police departments, city managers, city parks, UVA facilities management and the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority. They were being briefed on the aftermath of the hypothetical storm.

There was good news: No loss of life was reported from the flooding. But hospitals were reporting injuries due to everyday clean up and citizens were still boiling water.

Officials were presented with two different situations to work with, one that occurs five days after the storm, another that looks at the area after 10 days. According to Thomas, officials must deal with issues such as sheltering those without housing, cleaning up debris from the flood and assessing property damage. In looking at a disaster like this before it happens, area officials hope to find and fix potential problems before they discover them during a disaster.

The exercise is to "identify areas where we can work together to mitigate hazards and things that don’t work well," says Marge Sidebottom, UVA’s emergency preparedness director. "I’ll also be looking to see what impact this has with other communities we work with fairly regularly, like Martha Jefferson [Hospital]. I’m not sure how this would impact them and what that would do with the health system in terms of response."

As the briefing went on, the next slide looked at the media situation. One problem that officials were having—hypothetically, mind you—was "some issues with creating news" as the media ran emotional stories that put extra pressure on officials.

Roughly two minutes after that slide, the reporters in the room—the real media—were told that their time observing the program was up.

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