Once upon a disaster in Emmitsburg

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EMMITSBURG, Md. - The people of Roaring River Indian Community knew a flood
was coming. The National Weather Service, tracking a stalled low pressure
front, put them on high alert.

Still, it was a shock when a storm dumped five inches of rain on tribal
land and the mobile homes on Route 1 started floating away on that early
March morning.

Power outages in Big Rock closed tribal offices and started a panic. Rising
water trapped 35 people in their homes. Grocery stores were closed; the
bridge washed out on Route 22. To make things worse, the levee showed signs
of giving way.

People jammed the 911 lines, asking where they could go, how they should
move the elders, whether it was safe to drink the water.

And the forecast called for more rain.

Then the press came to Gold Mine with tough questions. They asked what the
tribe had been doing to prepare for a catastrophe; after all, the river
carves out a floodplain on the reservation. One reporter wondered if the
tribe was even capable of handling a disaster. That made the chairman mad -
but it didn't really matter, since he missed the press conference when the
creek washed out the bridge.

It's odd that most people haven't heard of Roaring River: a few miles from
the Atlantic seaboard, it sits in the middle of the most dangerous locale
in America. Battered by floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, chemical
spills and terrorist attacks, the Roaring River environs have felt more
pain than all the plagues ever handed out to Pharaoh in the Bible.

The good news is that Roaring River is a "model community" which, in
federal lingo, means it doesn't really exist.

Its 5,000 inhabitants live in the fictional state of Columbia, a figment of
Uncle Sam's imagination. The whole scenario was dreamed up at the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a part of the Department of Homeland
Security that has ramped up emergency training for government personnel
since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Roaring River tragedy takes up an afternoon in a four-day course at the
National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg. The center includes the
Emergency Management Institute (EMI), to which two dozen people from Alaska
to Arizona came in March for an introduction to tribal emergency
procedures.

Three days of talks and preparation led up to the big flood. In small
groups, participants role-played as Roaring River officials, including
emergency manager, public safety director, volunteer coordinator and press
officer. Once briefed about the reservation, they had to talk themselves
through the disaster, line up a response sequence and implement the
beginning of a ground plan.

First things first: get the tribal chair and council to sign a state of
emergency. So what's next? Someone asks if the water is safe to drink. Just
in case, answers the emergency manager, let's give out ample supplies of
bottled water.

But priorities like downstream evacuation intervene. Are community vans
equipped for the disabled? Has the National Guard been called? Whose job is
it to contact them?

The first hour passes in a blur. "We have sacred ground near Deer Lake. Do
we want someone down there looking after it?" Lodging: "Don't forget
there's 100 beds at the casino." Endangered groups: "What about the
juvenile inmates at the detention center?"

Community centers have three days' worth of food, someone says. "No good.
We need enough for a month." So how do you get it to Four Corners? "Not on
Route 22. Try State 10 to 21. That road's open." At least, that's what the
command directions say.

It's all about making priorities as they go along. "Are we in contact yet
with the state? Is there enough gravel and sand to shore up the levee?"
Someone else pipes up, "Are the people being evacuated allowed to take
their pets?"

The players are earnest but low-key; after all, this is Emergency
Management Framework for Tribal Governments, not a real deluge. But the
exercise focuses on functions common to many emergencies, whether wrought
by wind, water, earth, fire, hazardous substance or human design.

Training is held at the former St. Joseph's College for Women campus, a
space converted in the 1970s to a federal facility. Participants learn to
form partnerships with county and state managers before a disaster happens.
Sessions on domestic preparedness grants, emergency operations plans and
rapid needs assessment are held. Participants are briefed on the ins and
outs of the Homeland Security Act, which considers tribal entities as local
governments only.

EMI offers three courses targeted for federal and state-recognized tribes:
Management Framework, Management Operations and Mitigation. Scores of other
offerings are open to qualified state, local and tribal government workers
in areas from debris management and earthquake recovery to hazardous
materials and state community relations. Qualified tribal people can take
as many courses as they want. Some offerings are also given in the field.

This is one "college" where money is no obstacle. Roundtrip airfare,
airport transportation, and private room and bath on the Emmitsburg campus
are free. The only cost to participants for a week-long course is a
cafeteria meal ticket, which comes to less than $90.

Advanced courses take brain-storming a step further for ambitious learners
from all groups. Using phone banks and dozens of participants to replicate
an emergency in roughly real time, the Institute unleashes more intricate
disasters in the simulation labs in Building S.

Tribes such as the Blackfeet, Gila River, Shoshone-Bannock and Mohawk have
taken these integrated management courses, which are also offered on the
reservations.

Tribal-specific courses at the Institute are offered at least once
annually: go to www.fema.gov for details.

And don't forget to stock the bottled water. Chances are, said FEMA, you
live in a place a lot like Roaring River.