Meeting Accesses Ice Storm Response

Princeton, KY – More than eight months after the largest natural disaster in Kentucky history, state and county officials gathered for a recap. Wednesday the Interim Joint State Government Committee convened in Princeton. On the agenda was evaluating Kentucky's response to the 2009 Ice Storm. Angela Hatton brings us this report from the meeting.

It was a clear and beautiful fall day and over half of the 50 members of the State Government Committee were on hand at the former First Christian Church, now the Princeton City Hall and Welcome Center. The subject was some less than beautiful days in late January when the ice storm swept across the Commonwealth, hitting the counties in western Kentucky particularly hard. Committee-member Representative Melvin Henley of Murray expected the meeting to be mostly an information gathering session.

"It's always good to collect information from the people that are working down where the rubber hits the road because that's where the action is and if there are gaps in the responder services we need to know about it and correct it. And we of course need to hear from those who did well."

Judge-Executives from Caldwell, Crittenden, Livingston, and McCracken Counties spoke before the committee about the impact and response in their areas. Crittenden County Judge-Executive Fred Brown chose to emphasize the positive in his statement. Brown said because his county is rural, emergency planners had prepared to help themselves.

"In a major event such as an earthquake, the state and federal resources would be directed to the heavily populated areas first which is way it has to be, which is the way it should be. Therefore, we knew and started making plans to be on our own for several days."

Brown praised the many individuals who contributed to the ice storm recovery, including the Kentucky National Guard and volunteers who went door to door performing wellness checks. Brown credited the wellness checks with saving six Crittenden residents from carbon monoxide poisoning. The other judges echoed Brown's positivity in their own reports. However, upon questioning they admitted there were problems. The main culprit was the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McCracken County Judge-Executive Van Newberry.

"If I could say one thing about FEMA. I hope in the future if we ever have another thing like this FEMA sends the real FEMA people in at the beginning and not the PR folks to make us all feel good because I think in the long run that didn't help a whole lot."

Livingston County Judge-Executive Chris Lasher and Judge Brown of Crittenden cited problems with FEMA generators sent to power their water treatment plant. All the judges complained of a loss of county control when FEMA came in. But Kentucky National Guard Adjutant General Edward Tonini painted a different picture of FEMA. His testimony followed the county reports.

"For the most part even though we did have some hiccups that were alluded to earlier, I believe that was in fact one of the most successful such operations that was put together by FEMA in cooperation with the state emergency management operation in the history of our country."

Tonini partly credited the success to exercises undergone in March 2008 that prepared the state for a possible New Madrid earthquake. Kentucky Emergency Management Director Brigadier General John Heltzel also spoke. He pointed to the scope of the disaster.

"This thing was three hundred eighty-seven miles wide, a hundred miles deep. Katrina wudn't that big. This thing was huge. And it was the first time area we've declared over 100 counties in the Commonwealth. We could not have met this without FEMA stepping in when they did."

Heltzel looked ahead to preparing for the next disaster. He called on all counties to have resources stockpiled and for each to have a full-time emergency management director. Heltzel said not having the funds can't be an excuse.

"The reality is if the bad thing happens, we're here to protect citizens. That's mission number one, life saving, life sustainment and if we're not ready we won't be able to do that. The second thing is to protect the economic engine. If communities go down, if a bad thing happens and a community cannot make money, the impact can go on for months if not years."

Heltzel's report lists 273 million dollars in claims from the ice storm. But Senator Julian Carroll of Frankfort commented that the aggregate costs have been much more.

"Farm Bureau has paid out of a billion dollars in claims as an insurance company and I'm sure they're not the only insurance company."

Legislators plan to craft bills in response to the ice storm reports. Senator Tanya Pullin of South Shore plans to strengthen legislation to help National Guard soldiers who are severely injured in the line of duty. A measure may also address the laws regarding emergency prescription medications. Federal legislation is also moving through Congress that would grant Kentucky six million dollars for generator stockpiles.

After the meeting, Committee Co-Chair Representative Mike Cherry of Princeton said he appreciated the committee members from more populated districts listening to the issues faced by the smaller communities. Cherry said the meeting will definitely have an effect on the coming session. And he said this won't be the last meeting on the subject.