Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2013

Public safety leaders encourage readiness

BY GLENN PUIT gpuit@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Two bombs go off on a crowded street in Boston.

A shooter inflicts unspeakable terror at an elementary school in Connecticut.

Powerful tornadoes destroy communities in Alabama and Missouri.

Those tragedies may seem a world away from rural northern Michigan, where people and crime are sparse and the sense of community is strong. But public safety leaders in the Grand Traverse region said such tragedies, including mass shootings, terrorist attacks and devastating natural disasters, can happen here, and being ready for worst case scenarios -- as individuals and communities -- will save lives when disaster strikes.

“I think our first responders, police, fire, EMS -- they are as prepared as they can be for events like this,” said Leelanau County Emergency Management Director Tom Skowronski. “The citizens themselves? I don’t think ... very well-prepared.”

Officials ranked the top public safety threats to the region as:

1. Snowstorms, straight-line winds and prolonged power outages.

Recent winters were mild, but northern Michigan received a reminder of what snow-induced havoc is like in March 2012. A snowstorm downed power lines and knocked out power for nearly a week.

“The older employees around here say that’s the worst we’ve seen,” said Cherryland Electric Cooperative General Manager Tony Anderson.

Anderson said wind with snow is the biggest threat to the power supply. He recommends people prepare for a worst-case scenario by having ample supplies of water, food, alternative medical treatment plans in place for the frail, and individualized emergency plans for your household.

The cooperative learned lessons from the lengthy outage and is constantly upgrading its equipment for dealing with prolonged power outages, Anderson said. The cooperative recently purchased a specialized device that allows for the quick digging of holes for power line poles in remote areas where there’s mud, lots of snow and frozen ground.

“We’ve had some wind storms over the years,” Anderson said. “In 2006, a straight line wind came through…wind with snow is the biggest threat.”

2. Tornadoes

Few locals think tornadoes are a concern in northern Michigan. That’s false. Tornadoes are rare here but they do happen and can be deadly: an October 2007 tornado in Kalkaska County killed one. From 1953 to 2004, there were three tornadoes in Leelanau County, four each in Benzie and Grand Traverse, six in Kalkaska and eight in Antrim County. Have a safety plan in place for your household and contact your county emergency manager for details on shelters within driving distance.

“They are always something to think about and prepare for,” said Jeff Lutz, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord. “It’s one of those things where you can’t say it’s never going to happen to you.”

Leelanau County carried out a county-wide tornado preparation drill April 10, working with county schools on their emergency response plan.

3. Crime and terrorism

The possibility of a gunman rampaging through a public place or terrorists striking at a crowded community event is something no one likes to think about, but we need to, said public safety leaders, with an emphasis on prevention.

“What happened in Boston, it can happen here,” said Grand Traverse County Emergency Management Supervisor Gregg Bird. “It can happen anywhere. Can you prevent something like that 100 percent? In my opinion, no, but you can have emergency management plans in place to help minimize that risk or be able to respond quickly, efficiently and effectively.”

Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich said the sheriff's department regularly trains for such scenarios. He said the trend of mass violence in public places started with shootings at postal facilities in the 1980s, and they've since morphed into a beyond-troubling phenomenon he blames in part on media-glorified violence.

Borkovich said crimes like the ones in Newtown, Columbine, Aurora and Boston can be prevented through citizen diligence and a willingness to call authorities when something doesn't seem right. He said most mass shootings are preceded by "all kinds of warnings."

"We have to have help from the public," Borkovich said. "They have to have their radar up and call us when they see something that seems really suspicious or a kid who is totally detached ... when you get input like this from your kids, it doesn't hurt simply to pass it on to school officials, who will pass it on to us."

Bird said money from the federal Homeland Security Department to public safety agencies in the region dwindled from $3 million to $300,000 in the most recent fiscal year, but local leaders constantly plan for the worst case scenarios. Interviews with officials at Munson Medical Center, the U.S. Coast Guard, area fire departments and the American Red Cross indicate the same.

"I think we are really fortunate to live in this community; all the community partners work very well together," said John Bolde, director of safety and security at Munson.