Fighting the flood from afarby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
While volunteers are filling sandbags and building dikes along the Red River this week, a key part of the flood effort is hundreds of miles away, in St. Paul. Minnesota's emergency operations center is now fully operational, bringing together dozens of state agencies and some of the lessons learned from the floods of 1997.
St. Paul, Minn. — It turns out that even acts of God require paperwork.
Lots of it.
"This is the main EOC area, this is where a lot of the state agencies and federal agencies and volunteer agencies are," says Doug Neville, the public information officer for the Minnesota department of public safety.
He's talking about a conference room about 80 feet wide in a St. Paul office building.
There, he issues updates on what's going on and keeps in touch with the governor's office, so state officials can concentrate on the flood. Dozens of them at any given time are working out of the Emergency Operations Center.
"They're in contact with their people on the ground, getting what they call situational awareness and reporting that back up, so that we can get a big picture of what's happening," Neville says.
And that information, in turn, is converted into spreadsheets and databases and phone lists and white boards sprawling with requests for all kinds of things ranging from four inch pumps, to fire trucks, to a platoon of state troopers and 25 miles of plastic sheeting.
Want a million sandbags delivered to your door?
Then talk to Kim Ketterhagen. He runs the logistics desk.
"Well, we work with our federal partners, the Army Corps of Engineers," Ketterhagen says. "They've been stockpiling those types of things, plus we're working really closely with the private sandbag manufacturers, who are in full speed right now, of course."
Ketterhagen's to-do list has stretched several feet down the wall at times
Around him, the the emergency operations center is jammed with dozens of rolling tables and telephones and laptops.
Televisions and maps and digital clocks hang on almost every wall. There are no windows or signs pointing to the center -- it's the state's proverbial undisclosed location.
It might seem an improbable site to fight high water on the Red River.
But it's right where it should be, according to Kris Eide, Minnesota's director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
"We at the state EOC take a look at the whole, entire picture," Eide says. "You can't do that from being right inside that area. You have to be far enough away and looking at it in a bird's eye view."
And staying out of the way can be important. Twelve years ago, Grand Forks' emergency operations center was right in the middle of the flood fight, in the city's downtown police station.
In the basement.
When the Red River spilled over the city's dikes, that operations center wound up further underwater than just about anything in town. Authorities had to move twice, even as they were trying to clean up the mess left by the high water.
The state has also learned from other recent emergencies, such as the floods in the southeastern part of the state in 2007 and the 35W bridge collapse.
There's a new emphasis on training and testing, Eide says.
"I think one of the lessons we've learned is that we need to focus on making sure everybody is in the communications loop, that we create relationships before hand, so we aren't just introducing ourselves at the time of an emergency."
The EOC is now running around the clock, and likely will be until the threat of high water subsides.
- All Things Considered, 03/26/2009, 5:50 p.m.