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Preparing for the worst: Southwest Disaster Coalition works together to plan for various types of emergencies in the region

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Disasters often strike with little to no warning, leaving first responders and many other organizations in the community with not much time to form a plan of action. To help deal with a potential disaster, groups from across southwest North Dakota are working together to prepare for a large-scale emergency.

The Southwest Disaster Coalition was established in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Groups in southwest North Dakota wanted to have a plan in place in case a similar scenario happened in the area, said Sherry Adams, director of the Southwest Disaster Coalition and executive director of the Southwest District Health Unit.

Groups in the coalition include fire departments, law enforcement, social services, public health, emergency managers, Community Action and schools across all eight counties— Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Golden Valley, Hettinger, Slope and Stark.

Adams said having the partnerships and networking is vital to the coalition's success and will help in executing the plans when the time comes.

"When there is a problem or a disaster that's affecting our community, we already know each other very well," she said. "We know who to call and we can work on some ideas as to how to help each other out."

Bill Fahlsing, Stark County emergency manager, said the group will discuss planning ideas, shortfalls that different agencies are experiencing, how agencies can help fill those gaps and what resources an agency can provide when responding to a disaster.

"With the disaster coalition, a lot of it is relationship building," he said. "It has given us the opportunity to work with agencies that we normally don't deal with on a day-to-day basis that we normally would deal with in disaster response and recovery."

Fahlsing said the coalition gives him a chance to work with groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which he normally doesn't get to see on normal basis.

"It gives us the opportunity to get to know each other so that when something happens we can contact them about resources they can bring to the table," he said.

Emergencies ranging from disease outbreaks to disaster response will be covered by the coalition. Adams said the coalition was helpful in 2009 when the south side of Dickinson was hit by an F3 tornado.

"The same group came together and ... our primary role during that time was volunteer management," she said. "We kind of helped organize the volunteers and such to go out to the south part of the city to help with cleanup."

The coalition does more than just respond to natural disasters. Adams said when the last oil boom hit the area, one of the biggest needs was emotional health. Coalition members responded by putting together an "emotional health toolkit," which was distributed throughout the area to be used to help people with stress, burnout, depression and suicide.

"Whatever the thing or issue might be for the time, we try to work on it as a group," she said.

Adams described the work they do as a wheel, with the disaster coalition being in the center and other, more specific coalitions branching off from there. The other coalitions—medical, behavioral, utilities—have a representative at the disaster coalition, but then focus on their specific tasks.

The medical coalition consists of various health partners across the region that focus on medical needs, such as with H1N1 and other diseases. It also helps organize medical resources, such as masks and gloves.

Fahlsing said the coalition has opened his eyes to the behavioral health side of disaster response.

"When a disaster happens, our first responders respond along with these other agencies and as soon as that disaster is over there's a whole other piece that comes into it," he said. "That disaster mental health is a huge piece to the recovery process."

The utilities coalition includes groups like Southwest Water Authority and Roughrider Electric. It partners to make sure critical infrastructure stays open when power or other resources are not readily available for many days across the city.

"You really need that utilities group, or public works group, to be a part of the planning because that's a huge component also in a disaster," Adams said.

From time to time, the disaster coalition will conduct exercises to practice a real-life response plan. For example, the coalition will partner with all eight counties to pick up medicine or vaccines where the counties will pretend to administer antibiotics.

"We do a lot of practicing with different types of scenarios," Adams said. "Whether it's an airport incident or a train derailment, or a mass pandemic of some kind, we do just a variety of exercises."

Adams said the disaster coalition can create a domino effect across the area because of the amount of communicating that goes on.

"I am all about preparedness," Adams said. "That is my passion, truly, for people to be prepared. It takes a whole group to get as many people as we have in our region to try and get them to be prepared. ... The more we can get the word out to the people that are out there, the better-prepared we'll be as a region. If something terrible does happen, it's going to take all of us to come together to get through a situation."

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook started working as the multimedia editor for The Press in January 2016.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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