Lack of shelters cited hazard planning meeting

What’s the worst that could happen? Is a winter blizzard worse than a summer thunderstorm? What causes greater economic damage — drought or fire or flood? And if something awful happens and people are displaced, where would they go?

Those are some of the questions facing public officials as they update Custer County’s Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Daphne Digrindakis, senior project manager for Tetra Tech, the company hired by the county to assist with the update, facilitated two meetings about the effort on Wednesday at Miles Community College. Primarily city, county, state and federal officials attended. 

The plan and its updates are required by FEMA in order for Custer County and incorporated municipalities to qualify for hazard mitigation funding.

Additionally, the plan helps the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) anticipate what hazards, both natural and man-made, could occur, so they can devise ways to reduce the impact.

LEPC will meet monthly until December to rank and prioritize hazards and try to determine the economic impact of those hazards. “It ends up being a bunch of numbers but that’s what FEMA requires,” Digrindakis said.

The plan has several parts, and includes mapping hazardous areas like flood zones, as well as public safety buildings like fire or police stations.

Digrindakis, using the last version of the plan updated in 2011 as a guide, will help participants decide what potential hazards pose the greatest risk in the area, and which are most likely to occur. 

Hazards will be prioritized, and ways to lessen those hazards and the damage they cause will be identified in the “mitigation” part of the plan.

How widespread a hazard can be is also a consideration. For example, severe weather and communicable diseases are likely to be spread throughout the county, whereas a train derailment can only occur in a limited area.

Man-made hazards in Custer County are mostly related to trains and pipelines.

Gene Nimitz, the mayor of Ismay, said that the BNSF railroad has been “really making an effort to reduce fires.” The company is spraying weeds along the tracks earlier and extending the gravel buffers along tracks, in addition to installing detectors on car wheels to detect “hot wheels” before they create sparks.

Possible derailments also pose a major hazard, since oil, ethanol and other hazardous substances regulsarly pass through Custer County.

Economic impact is also important. In eastern Montana, Digrindakis said, “the loss of grass resource is often more devastating than the loss of structures” in the case of wildfire.

An issue that was not discussed in 2011 was shelters for displaced persons. The meeting was held at MCC, which would make an excellent shelter, with plenty of space, a commercial kitchen and showers, if only it had emergency generators. Officials said MCC has no emergency generators, or even the capacity for emergency generators to be hooked into the electrical system.

Bill Ellis, Custer County Disaster and Emergency Services deputy coordinator, said that while the Holy Rosary Healthcare hospital, the Custer County Courthouse and a few other emergency facilities have such generators, MCC does not, which means it would unusable as a shelter in an emergency.

The public will be invited to comment on the hazard mitigation plan after a draft is completed. It must be submitted to state and federal emergency agencies for approval, and adopted by the Custer County Commissioners and the Miles City and Ismay councils.

(Contact Amorette Allison at mcreporter@midrivers.com or 406-234-0450.)