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Missouri’s Emergency Responders Say They’re Ready For Natural Disasters Amid COVID-19 Crisis

The Feb. 28 tornado killed one man and destroyed more than 100 Perryville area homes.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri emergency management personnel say they're ready for natural disasters, such as this tornado that affected Perryville in 2017, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

As Gov. Mike Parson stepped to a podium to address the media earlier this month, he had more on his mind than just the coronavirus pandemic. 

The night before, strong storms damaged property in two different areas — Laclede and Bates counties — a stark reminder that natural disasters are lurking during Missouri’s springtime. Parson used his opening remarks to emphasize that Missouri’s emergency management personnel are ready to deal with things like tornadoes, floods and severe storms as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“It is a balancing act between COVID-19, reopening the economy, severe weather and many other things on a daily basis,” Parson said. “But I want to assure you: We are prepared in the state of Missouri.”

State and local officials who regularly deal with natural disasters echoed Parson’s sentiments. They said that they can focus on coronavirus and respond effectively if another emergency hits.

“We and all those other agencies across the state stand ready to support and care for the citizens of Missouri, in response to all crises,” said Lt. Col. Shannon Holaday of the Missouri National Guard. “The Missouri National Guard maintains ample available capability in the areas of engineering, aviation and security, to highlight a few. Those are typical in this spring part of the season.”

Multiple focuses

Organizations like the Missouri National Guard and the State Emergency Management Agency have been working over the past couple of months to help with coronavirus-related efforts. Holaday pointed out that the National Guard is currently assisting with moving medical supplies and supporting food bank operations.

One of the reasons for Holliday’s optimism is that many emergency management agencies have experience dealing with multiple disasters at the same time. Caty Lubbert of the State Emergency Management Agency pointed to 2019, when tornadoes touched down in and around Jefferson City. 

“We’ve just been adjusting and adapting to the current situation,” Lubbert said. “And as severe weather strikes, we’ll work with our partners to ramp up that response.”

Both Lubbert and Holliday emphasized that their agencies have separate funding streams to deal with natural disasters. 

“With COVID-19, it was declared as a federal disaster in Missouri,” Lubbert said. “So there was funding that opened up for local governments and eligible nonprofits to receive reimbursement for emergency protective measures. We’ve had over 700 agencies that already submitted their request for that. If there were another disaster declared, then that would be separate from the current situation.”

Training is key

Sarah Gamblin-Luig, deputy commissioner of the St. Louis Emergency Management Agency, said her agency regularly trains for disaster scenarios that feature multiple events. That’s one of the reasons she feels comfortable that city emergency personnel would respond ably if there’s floods or a tornado.

“Whenever we’re doing an exercise, we have contingencies built in for cascading events and other outside events that may affect the primary response at that time,” Gamblin-Luig said. “You always keep safety in mind for your responders and the people you’re responding to help.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page noted that his county has a state-of-the-art emergency operations facility that can swiftly respond.

“We’re tracking all of that. And if we have a natural disaster on top of this disaster, then we’ll find a path through it,” Page said. “It certainly will be difficult. Two natural disasters. Two tornadoes right on top of each other, which we’ve seen before. Other types of disasters together are challenging. But we’ll manage our way through.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.