County ready for the storm

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 19, 2004

As jail administrator for the Marengo County Detention Center, Kevin McKinney keeps on the alert for potential trouble from inmates.

As director of the Marengo County Emergency Management Agency, he keeps on the alert for potential trouble from bad weather.

McKinney’s jail administrator office lies deep in the bowels of the detention center. He’s also got an EMA office in the Marengo County Courthouse annex. But his real EMA office is his car.

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“We don’t have an emergency operations center,” McKinney explains, “so if bad weather hits I get near a phone or get in a car and ride.”

McKinney keeps a National Weather Service radio handy, and he has a direct link to the state emergency operations center in Clanton. But he’s also learned the importance of not discounting his own five senses.

“I know from personal experience that sometimes radar is not as good as eyeballs,” he says.

McKinney has been on the job just over a month. So far he’s had more experience with paperwork than he has any actual emergencies.

Marengo County is awaiting approval from the state EMA for its emergency operations plan. The plan details exactly how fire, police and medical personnel would respond in the event of an emergency.

With tornado season fast approaching, McKinney gives the county generally good marks as far as its level of preparedness, but adds, “That really depends on the definition of preparedness. I do know that with the installation of warning sirens we’re in much better shape than we have been in years past.”

There are currently five warning sirens operational in Marengo County: three in Demopolis and one each in Linden and Myrtlewood. The sirens, which are turned on in the event of a tornado warning from the National Weather Service, are operated by the 911 center in Demopolis. They’re tested the first Thursday of every month at 9 a.m.

“Those are strictly for use in bad weather,” McKinney notes.

The sirens are designed to give residents a few extra moments to seek shelter in the event of a tornado. But McKinney cautions that even the most sophisticated warning system can only do so much. “You can’t stop a tornado,” he shrugs. “About all you can do is get out of the way when it’s coming and clean up when it’s over.”

The times being what they are, McKinney’s office has more to worry about than just tornadoes, however. In the aftermath of 9/11 the county’s new emergency operations plan also includes possible responses to a bioterrorism attack.

“The old EOP plan for the county didn’t cover bioterrorism. It wasn’t deemed a threat at that time,” he says.

McKinney points out that while homeland security issues such as preventing terrorist attacks are considered to be separate from the kinds of threats that EMAs have traditionally dealt with, the reality is that in less populated counties the two overlap and are often handled by the same people.

“My job, basically, is to act as a facilitator, coordinating with the different emergency groups,” he says.

The preparation involved isn’t cheap. Marengo County received a $10,000 grant to help assess its vulnerability to different emergencies and to prepare an EOP plan. The next step, according to McKinney, will be to provide training for emergency personnel and to acquire any equipment deemed necessary to meet various scenarios.

“All this is still new,” McKinney says. “Ten years ago they were still holding bake sales and cakewalks to pay for the new fire truck and hoses. Now we’ve gone way beyond that.”