The past week has been a struggle for many of our communities. The weather is unpredictable and regardless of the preventive measures we may take, the threat of loss of property and life is overwhelming for most of us. Today, I was discussing the harsh weather with a citizen, and he mentioned how difficult and stressful it must be to work for the City during times like these.
It made me pause.
I think of the City as a professional team. We are the direct result of the community’s desire to make sure that a group of people will look out for us. That is a benefit of living in a community like ours. Whether it is a county, a township, a rural community or a metropolitan area, people live in populated areas with the notion that someone is coming to help if the situation arises.
We have a simple rule at the City with regard to emergency management. In times of severe weather, take care of your family first and then report to work so we can take care of the community. I followed this procedure on Monday. The sirens went off around 4:15 pm, before I had left work. We had the staff and citizens in city hall make their way to the basement as we waited for the storm to pass. When the sirens ended, I headed home, made sure my family was safe and calm, and then headed to the Emergency Operations Center.
Here is what I saw.
No less than two dozen emergency vehicles were in the parking lot – and this was not a City event. I headed to the back of the room and took a seat. The incident commanders, led by Crawford Co. Emergency Manager Jason VanBecelaere, were meeting with dozens of city and county fire personnel, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, highway patrol officers, volunteer fire personnel, heavy equipment operators from several agencies, and many others. They were assessing the damage to Langdon Lane and the surrounding area, while also planning the search and rescue effort needed to determine if anyone had been hurt. Simultaneously, they were assessing the possible remaining threat for the evening, sending out communications to the community…and then POOF, they were gone.
They poured out of the Emergency Operations Center to knock on doors, and check on the safety and welfare of those in the path of the storm. They were clearing roads, identifying downed utility lines, barricading flooded roads; but most importantly, they were out in your community, on your streets, in your yards, constantly talking to one another to ensure that you and your loved ones were safe and secure.
My job during events like this is to support the members of the Emergency Operations Center. They are experts in first response and they are well trained. They know how to act quickly. Just two weeks before, our Public Information Manager Sarah Runyon organized a table-top emergency response scenario where, yes, a tornado hit the south side of Pittsburg. This allowed the emergency responders to walk through the event and practice how to respond, without the pressure of doing it live – and the practice paid off.
Two days later, the sirens went off again and this time I was at home with my family. As we entered our safe room, one of my kids asked me “If the house comes down around us, will our friend Jay show up to dig us out?” I assured them, “Yes, somebody will come, but it might not be Jay. It may be someone from a different community or even a different state.” I explained that during times like these, teams of people join forces to do what needs to be done. Our utility, police and fire departments receive assistance from other communities’ utility, police and fire departments. Our streets crews receive help from the county and vice versa. Westar receives assistance from other communities and agencies to get the power back on, and to limit the immediate danger of downed power lines. Our community is flooded with tree-removal companies to address the daunting task of clearing the damaged trees, which our small Parks & Recreation Department could not possibly handle alone.
I personally received calls to see if we needed assistance from Joplin, Wichita, Kansas City, several other smaller towns, and the League of Kansas Municipalities. Even Mission Construction, the street contractor working on South Rouse, immediately called to offer their equipment to clear roads if we were having trouble reaching people trapped in their homes. And in turn, a few days later when Carl Junction and other communities to our east were hit by storms, we returned the offer. We stand together during times of crisis.
I know professionals when I see them. Several times this week I saw something that made me proud and gave me strength. I saw a professional team of extremely skilled and dedicated women and men, from a variety of jurisdictions, working with one purpose – to secure your safety. It was a bright spot in what has been a dreary few weeks. They know what they are doing, and they have a passion for it.
We live in a special place during a challenging time. I hope this weather pattern ends soon, but I take comfort that my family and I are being looked after by responsible, trained professionals who care about all of us.
You should too.
Daron Hall has served as City Manager of Pittsburg for six years and has a 27-year career in public administration. He has an undergraduate degree from Washburn University and a Masters of Public Administration from Texas A&M University. He currently serves as President for the League of Kansas Municipalities.