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On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States woke up about terrorism.

In February 2002, state and local government agencies teamed up for the Winter Olympics.

Now, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, area emergency service providers say it's time for everybody to wise up about natural disasters: They are devastating lessons on the power of nature and the limits of government.

"The public needs to know the federal government isn't the end-all, do-all," said Capt. Klint Anderson, spokesman for the Weber County Sheriff's Office. A natural disaster brings terrible logistical problems for local, state and federal agencies that oversee communications, transportation, utilities and public safety, he said. And for all the resources the government has, the past two weeks are clear evidence that the response to the Gulf Coast disaster was unacceptably slow.

"Government isn't set up to deal with a massive amount of caring for people," says Scott Freitag, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Fire Department.

Proof of that seems to be in the current criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, its boss reassigned and its operation under fire.

For all the inefficiency FEMA is blamed for in New Orleans, blame was not part of its effort earlier this year in southern Utah when heavy rains caused flooding and destroyed numerous homes.

Jensen said the state's experience with FEMA and use of the agency's resources was a good one, although the scope of the Utah disaster was much smaller than that which swamped the Gulf Coast.

Local and state agencies have to understand that FEMA doesn't automatically show up to any disaster, said Bob Carey, earthquake program manager for the state's Division of Homeland Security.

If a city declares a state of emergency, the county's resources are unlocked, he said. If a disaster grows beyond a county's resources, the county declares a state of emergency. If the need for resources continues to grow, a state can make the same declaration.

The state's declaration opens the way for FEMA, Carey said. Storms, such as the one that hit the Gulf Coast, can be predicted to a point, and some federal resources were put in place beforehand.

But in the event of the most serious natural disaster likely to hit Utah — a major earthquake during a weeklong snowstorm — no forewarning is possible.

A 7.2-magnitude quake killing 1,300 to 2,100 people is the worst case scenario anticipated for Salt Lake City. The situation would be compounded if the earthquake happened during a blizzard, Carey said.

Being prepared

The federal government declared September as National Preparedness Month. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintains a Web site, www.ready.gov, which provides preparedness information.

Some private businesses sell preparedness supplies, and many other Web sites offer information about preparing for a disaster.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who constitute the majority of Utah's population, are advised to contact ecclesiastical leaders for instructions and have long been encouraged to have emergency stores of foods and other essentials on hand.

The culture of Utah seems to be one of preparedness, emergency managers agree.

People need to have an emergency supply of cash or sufficient savings to live on for an extended period of time, because jobs can disappear overnight as they did in Hurricane Katrina, said Kevin Nield, the church's director of Bishops' Storehouse Services.

"For many, many years we've been counseled to have a supply of food on hand that we could eat if we didn't have anything else," Nield said.

Also, church volunteers and missionaries spent Wednesday and Thursday on an assembly line, packing food boxes designed to feed a family of four for a week.

Freitag said LDS Church members are encouraged to have a 72-hour kit —food and other supplies that can sustain disaster victims for at least three days.

Local church leaders, who preside over geographical areas, are encouraged to meet local emergency managers to let them know what resources they will have available in an emergency, said church spokesman Dale Bills. They are also asked to become trained by local Community Emergency Response Teams, known as CERTs, which fall under the jurisdiction of municipalities.

Lessons to learn

Expertise comes with experience, and Utah disaster managers hope to learn from the experience of managers in the South.

It's still too early to know all the lessons to be learned from Katrina, but they've already picked up a few things.

Organization, communications and planning are essential to dealing efficiently with a disaster, Anderson said.

In the flood zone, many officers lacking supervision did a good job of reorganizing themselves and operating as an island agency, he said, meaning the officers set up a small command center to help nearby residents until reinforcements arrived.

"We see a lot of ingenuity," he said.

All administrators need to know their roles in a disaster, Carey said, and he gave this example:

Imagine the division of emergency services' director at a meeting in another state. The deputy director is across town in another meeting. And bureau chiefs are out of the office when disaster strikes. It's 12:30 p.m., lunchtime. The freeways are full of traffic. Downtown is bustling with crowds.

That was the situation in August 1999 when a tornado struck Salt Lake City.

But emergency services were online and working because the person in charge knew how to get the process going, he said. The highest-ranking officer assumed command of the operations center on Capitol Hill and orchestrated rescue and recovery efforts, Carey said.

"It doesn't matter if the leaders aren't there," he said.

Despite a quick response to the tornado, the communications system became jammed with officers from 30 departments and agencies trying to communicate. Cell phones lost service and eventually lost power.

In response to the tornado, the state's Department of Public Safety now owns a communications van that can go into the field, Jensen said. The van has equipment that allows different types of radio frequencies to work with one another. "Communication is a big component of an effective response," Jensen said.

The department has built redundancies into its communications, too, he said.

If police radios go down despite the van and backup power, there are ham radio operators trained to take over communications.

Medical centers

Hospitals, too, are planning for contingencies.

Primary Children's Medical Center is built to withstand a major earthquake, despite its proximity to the Wasatch Fault, said spokeswoman Bonnie Midget.

The hospital staff routinely drills for emergency situations, she said.

If a disaster happens and the hospital loses power, there are three generators that run on natural gas and two emergency generators that run on diesel fuel, she said.

Patient life support systems run on battery power if necessary. Water lines enter the hospital in three different locations to minimize the possibility of total loss of water.

Each Intermountain Health Care facility, of which there are several in Salt Lake Valley, gets its electricity from a different source, so if one hospital goes down, it will be likely the others nearby will be functional.


E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com