PEABODY — A common sentiment echoed around the room during a "Be Ready, Be Resilient" meeting in Peabody Thursday night — the town is not yet adequately prepared to deal with a large-scale disaster.
"Some of the things that we might have to address as a community we don't have any resources for, currently," said Bruce Burke, Peabody chief of police.
Burke noted the town's location between a major highway and an active railway increased its chance of having to deal with a chemical spill — and dealing with natural disasters could also present major issues for underprepared facilities.
"There's a couple things about our nursing homes that really concern me in our community, especially after having been through two ice storms," Burke said.
Susan Lamb, who was Hesston Community Foundation's director during the mass shooting at Excel Industries in 2016, led the meeting. Lamb asked attendees to think about what would be required in the event of a tornado, ice storm, chemical spill, wildfire or human-instigated disaster.
"If there would be a tornado, is it the police department that is the first go-to group or how does that work," Lamb asked.
"That's a good question," Burke replied. "I'm not sure that I have a pat answer to that question."
Such incidents can impact small towns and force them to shut down if they are unprepared, Lamb noted.
"Your role in the community is to have some of those conversations ahead of time so that you're not put in a place where you don't have a plan," Lamb said. "...If you haven't worked together during blue skies, then during gray skies it will be very difficult."
Sharing her experiences in Hesston, Lamb said one of the biggest challenges after the shooting there was in the area of finances — how to handle donations coming in and requests for assistance.
"The amount of thought that you had to put (into) that in the initial first few days was very complicated," Lamb said.
N.M. Patton, Peabody Community Foundation board president, noted the organization has an account set up, ready to receive donations in case of a disaster.
In thinking through various disaster scenarios, it became apparent that most of the aid would come from organizations in larger population centers.
"In our communities, we do sort of have a limited number of response agencies," Lamb acknowledged.
Talks between nonprofits, churches, schools, government, first responders and other organizations to determine what each could offer in case of a disaster and bolstering their efforts to prepare for such an event is critical, Lamb noted.
"Building those relationships across the entities ahead of time is one of the things that will help us all in disaster response," Lamb said.
Communities can work to ensure its vulnerable populations — those who are elderly, handicapped or speak limited English, etc. — are cared for in case of an emergency.
Bringing in qualified and knowledgable assistance — from those able to relieve first responders to medical professionals able to dispense medications to counselors and those who can give legal advice — is often necessary after a disaster, Lamb noted.
Natural or human disasters may also bring challenges to a community including the loss of cell phone service, extra media attention and a need to feed and shelter both residents and volunteers.
Marion Rowland, a Peabody Community Foundation board member who formerly worked for Harvey County's Parks department, noted sightseers snarled traffic and blocked access for responders after the 1990 tornado that hit Hesston.
"Here at the library, we've found that all FEMA applications have to be done online, so now what percentage of people have computers," questioned Norma Patton, president of Peabody's library board.
It can take between 18 to 24 months for mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder to manifest in those affected by a major incident, Lamb noted.
"Once you get past that initial recovery, then you have to start looking at long-term rebuilding and recovery," Lamb said.
Other long-term issues a community faces after a disaster may include unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, legal issues and delayed financial aid.
"I think one thing we forget about this is that just because debris is cleaned up or just because the fire is out, that doesn't mean that recovery is (done) — it's not going to be a sprint, it's going to be a marathon," Lamb said.
Burke said he is working on an emergency operations plan, talking with various departments in Peabody to coordinate guidelines that will then be put before the city council for approval.
"Once that's in place, then it's my hope that we can update it yearly rather than wait 25 years to work on it because if we keep it current, then we have a much better guideline in place for our community," Burke said.
Peabody's emergency operations plan will dovetail into Marion County Emergency Communications' plan, allowing the county to request federal resources, if needed, for the town.
"As I've worked through this plan, it's become apparent to me that our local resources will become overwhelmed very quickly," Burke said. "...We need a real good structure for being organized and being as efficient as possible."
"Be Ready, Be Resilient" was made possible by a grant from the Funders Network given to Central Kansas Community Foundation.