Front gate to Umatilla County Chemical Depot. (Photo courtesy of BCES)
Umatilla County in Oregon houses one of seven chemical weaponry stockpiles in the U.S. The county was prepared for large-scale disaster long before 9/11 raised the rest of the nation’s emergency awareness. Living on Earth talks with Cheryl Seigal of Umatilla County Emergency Management to find out what steps Umatilla takes to be ready for the unexpected.
GELLERMAN: While many areas in the U.S. are trying to devise emergency preparedness plans, Umatilla County in Oregon has been ready to respond to disasters for decades. That’s because the county, which is larger than the state of Delaware, houses the Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot, one of seven facilities across the country where chemical weapons slated for destruction are stored. Cheryl Seigal is the public information officer for Umatilla County Emergency Management. In the past year, she’s responded to emergencies such as local bomb threats, wildfires, jet crashes, and dust storms. She joins me on the line.
Hi there, Ms. Seigal.
SEIGAL: Hello, how are you today?
GELLERMAN: I’m fine, thanks. Now, Cheryl it’s your job to prepare the public in case there were a chemical contamination. Exactly what is it that you do?
SEIGAL: The first thing that I try to do is try to increase the awareness. Do that through newspaper stories, going to public events, talking to families, groups, businesses, purchasing advertising to let people know that we have this unique hazard that’s in our area, help acquaint them with the ways that they would be notified, help them understand what they would be asked to do, and work with people one on one if needed, to help them know how they would need to implement those things in emergencies.
GELLERMAN: So, what are the scenarios that you’re planning for?
SEIGAL: Literally hundreds of scenarios. Everything from a small minor event – let’s say that they were in the process of moving chemicals and maybe the people involved with that had a heart attack, tripped and fell into some weaponry, and we had a minor type of a release – to what if we had a major earthquake that came through our area that damaged the storage facilities, the weapons themselves. Or, literally, what if we had a plane that fell out of the sky either intentionally or not, and went in to the area where these chemicals are stored.
GELLERMAN: And what’s the worse case?
SEIGAL: The worse case for our area is the possibility of an earthquake.
GELLERMAN: Now, I’m sure I’m not going to give anyone any ideas that they haven’t already had, but since 9/11 the whole situation with terrorism has changed. Have you changed as a result of 9/11 with precautions there?
SEIGAL: Not on the community side, no. Again we have, since we became aware that the chemicals were there, have placed a high priority on creating the plans and putting in place the equipment, and the training, and the tools and things that the public and response agencies would need if there was an event to respond. So the fact that there’s been 9/11, that hazard was here long before there was any type of a terrorism event.
GELLERMAN: So, Ms. Seigal are you convinced that should something, God forbid, happen, you and your county would be prepared.
SEIGAL: I am convinced. We have, since the early 1990’s, have been focused on preparing our area. Every year we do, not only say we think we’re ready but we actually put our plans and our training and our equipment to test. We do a large-scale community exercise that involves well over 10,000 people. That’s well over a quarter of the population that’s involved. We spend at least 4 to 5 hours pretending there’s been a real event, that we’re needing the public to take the actions that they would take, schools to take their actions, hospitals, the American Red Cross. We practice routinely communicating with the public continuously through that emergency.
GELLERMAN: Do you have special medical facilities, special hospitals there to deal with chemical contamination?
SEIGAL: We have 7 hospitals that are within 35 miles of the Umatilla Chemical Depot. And all of them have received training, equipment, and the things that they would need to respond or assist the public in a chemical emergency. They can decontaminate those people. That really means showering those people down and removing the chemical that could be on them. In addition the hospitals and medical personnel have the antidotes, atropine and trypane chloride, are the antidotes that are used for the nerve agents on hand.
GELLERMAN: So these hospitals, these 7 facilities, can handle 40,000 people potentially?
SEIGAL: They would not need to handle 40,000 people. Since 9/11 many many people have heard about plastic and duct tape. And it’s been a joke for many many people, but it’s a long-proven technique that can help people stay safe in a chemical emergency. So, the number of people, potentially, that our hospitals would have to deal with are nowhere near 40,000. But they have the capability to handle large amounts of the public if they needed.
GELLERMAN: Do people know you as the emergency lady?
SEIGAL: (laughs) Ah, sometimes I get called the emergency lady. Sometimes I just get called help.
GELLERMAN: Ms. Seigal, thank you very much.
SEIGAL: Thank you.
GELLERMAN: Cheryl Seigal is public information officer for Umatilla County emergency management. You can learn more about being prepared. You can go to www.ready.gov.
[MUSIC: MyLab “Not in My House” from ‘MyLab’ (Terminus Records – 2004)]
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