Arkansas Emergency Officials: Something’s Coming

September 18, 2009

Arkansas emergency officials say something big is coming — but they don’t know what it will be or when it will get here.

The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management issued a reminder Wednesday for residents to prepare for a disaster of any sort: a tornado, flood or earthquake. Department officials said they weren’t sure all of the state’s 2.8 million residents were ready.

“There will be an earthquake” in the New Madrid Seismic Zone along the Mississippi River in northeastern Arkansas, said Sheila Annable, the emergency management department’s preparedness director. “The question is whether it’s on a 200-year cycle or a 500-year cycle.”

During the winter of 1811 and 1812, a series of three earthquakes approaching magnitude 8 struck near New Madrid, Mo. A quake of the same strength today could cause billions of dollars worth of damage.

Arkansas is on the edge of Tornado Alley, has major rivers and steep valleys subject to flooding and while providing sanctuary for hurricane evacuees sometimes is in the path of the storms themselves. Ice and snow from time to time add to the occasional misery.

“Living in Arkansas, you should have a disaster supply kit for earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and ice storms,” said David Maxwell, the agency’s director.

Kits should include a gallon of water per day per person for three days, a battery-operated radio, first-aid kit, sleeping bags, can opener, candles, waterproof matches, flashlight, non-perishable food, a utility knife, extra eyeglasses and water purification tablets.

For extended power outages after an earthquake, it’s possible that up to a half-million people would have to be moved.

“Folks don’t cope well without electricity for an extended period of time. In an earthquake it could be months before electricity is restored,” Maxwell said.

An ice storm in January left some people without power for more than a week in northeastern Arkansas. Maxwell said such emergencies help the department prepare for larger ones, but he worries about concurrent disasters, such as an earthquake hitting while a hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast.

“I need to look at the worst-case scenario,” he said.

Annable said earthquake researchers have run simulations for what would happen in a quake of magnitude 7.7 and predicted that nearly 600 people would die and about 13,000 would be injured. The cleanup alone would be an incredible task.

“The ice storm will look like a piece of cake,” she said.

The Department of Emergency Management also would help direct a response should a swine flu outbreak interrupt critical state and municipal services, Maxwell said.

As the agency’s own precaution, bottles of hand sanitizer, still two-thirds full, stood atop desks at ADEM’s headquarters’ lobby and in various offices, including its cavernous command center at Camp Robinson in North Little Rock.

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