The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

April 20, 2013

When it comes to natural disaster preparedness, Ashtabula County is ready

By DAVE DELUCA - For the Star Beacon
Star Beacon

— What if a tornado cluster passed through an Ashtabula neighborhood? What if floodwaters were so high people couldn’t escape from their homes? There’s no denying the overwhelming power of a natural disaster. When one happens questions of survival quickly overtake comfort and convenience. Like it or not, in our part of the world, natural disasters are a fact of life.

Residents of Ashtabula County can take some comfort in knowing that when it comes to natural disaster preparedness, Ashtabula County is ready. Whether it might be tornadoes, storms and floods, blizzards, earthquakes or nuclear disasters there will be ample warning. If local residents can learn enough from the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency’s awareness and education programs, they’ll be on top of survival issues.

George Sabo is director of the Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency. He’s been the director for five years since 2008. The agency spearheads a patchwork of entities devoted to mitigating the effects of natural disasters. Sabo said Ashtabula County is prepared for any natural disaster.

“Even Tsunamis,” Sabo said. “But I don’t think we need to worry too much about that.”

The last time there was a mild tsunami on Lake Erie was in 1823, and the last life-threatening one on the Lake was thousands of years ago, so there’s not much threat of it happening soon. But there will be earthquakes caused by Lake Erie fault lines and injection well drilling.

“We had a 2.0 earthquake in Rock Creek on March 17,” he said. “It rattled some windows but didn’t do any measurable damage.”

The quake was probably related to brine injection drilling. The Ashtabula County Emergency Agency now has a seismograph of its own and doesn’t need to rely on information gathered from other sources.

‘Our seismograph actually picked up Fukushima,” he said. “It detects underground movement far and near.”

More important disaster issues concern storms, foods and tornadoes. A tornado struck Andover in 2010, and there was ample warning but one system failed. The warning sirens could not be heard over the sound of high winds. Sabo said the Emergency Management Agency now relies on a vastly more modern way of alerting citizens.

Sabo said Ashtabula County’s Emergency Management Agency is now part of FEMA’s Nuclear Planning Zone warning system. It was the first in the state to become part of the planning zone.  Along with Lake, Geauga and three other counties in nuclear plant zones in Ohio, the Emergency Management Agency can warn entire counties of natural or nuclear disasters via phones, the internet, social media and other conventional media like TV and radio.

“We use an I-Pod portal that can even run from a small phone,” he said. “It’s registered with FEMA and will alert all local systems.”

He said that because Ashtabula County’s Emergency Management Agency is part of a nuclear planning zone it is far better equipped to handle impending disaster than other counties in the state. The Nuclear Planning Zone warning system is funded by the state of Ohio and federal government, and to a lesser degree by First Energy.

Ashtabula County was pounded by Hurricane Sandy but not as badly as Cuyahoga County. In Cleveland, Edgewater Beach Park’s marina will not open this month because of damage from that storm. Also the hundred and thousand-year flood events of 2006 In Ashtabula and Lake Counties caused plenty of damage and inconvenience. Storms like these and power outages still remain Ashtabula County’s greatest natural disaster threats. The best way to prepare for them is to be aware of post-disaster human needs. The Ashtabula County Emergency Management Agency relies on education and awareness programs to provide local residents and 911 entities with what they must know.

“Everyone should have enough canned food for a few weeks, and at least a gallon of bottled water per person per day for three days,” Sabo said. “They also need battery or manually powered radios, communications and lighting devices. People need to be aware of all the things they can do to survive and stock up before a disaster strikes.”

As to whether the weather is getting worse because of global climate change, scientists disagree. Most find some statistical data to back that belief, but some say the data is incomplete and that the news and mass information about weather creates more public awareness but less understanding. Sabo tends to think that actual bad weather disasters are always possible, and that the information age has just made the subject more newsworthy.

“I’m not sure the weather is actually getting worse,” he said. “The important thing is that people become aware, educate themselves, and prepare for any contingency. This is where we come in to the picture.”