January 4, 2009 By Elaine Rundle
Citizens of Kansas City, Mo., were told that an arctic front would interrupt their mild winter, but didn't expect to find two inches of ice covering the city on the morning of Jan. 31, 2002. Making things worse, the storm topped the ice with two inches of snow. The fairy-tale appeal wore off quickly as officials realized that trees were snapping under the icy weight, streets were blocked and most residents were without power.
According to Michael Shaw, assistant director of the city's Public Works Department, approximately 500,000 trees were destroyed or damaged, which created 1.6 million metric tons of debris. Falling tree branches knocked down power lines and blocked 20,000 streets, leaving 75 percent of residents without power for weeks.
After 81 days and $26.8 million, the city was back to normal, but not before the importance of having emergency management contract clauses, an emergency management office and detailed documentation were reinforced.
City officials divided the response effort into three phases. "First we tried to unblock as many streets as possible so we could get police, fire and any kind of medics in, and also utility companies so we could get power restored to critical areas," Shaw said.
Phase one also included plowing snow and ice from the roads and trimming "tree hangers" -- limbs that threaten to create more problems (i.e., knocking down power lines, falling into streets or onto houses). The city allotted 48 hours for this phase, but trimming tree hangers and the hazardous task of cleanup continued for about four months, according to Forest Decker, the city forester of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.
In phase two, a task force was created to relocate large debris to collection sites and dispose of it. The task force consisted of high-ranking employees, such as directors, assistant directors and division heads, led by Mark McHenry, director of the Parks and Recreation Department. "I took on the role of the incident commander at the request of the mayor and city manager," he said. "I am the parks and recreation guy, so we deal with trees all the time -- but it was more than just trees."
Collecting and disposing of 1.6 million metric tons of debris was no small task. The city had three debris-staging locations: one north and one south of the city and one at Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League. "I think we calculated it one time that we had picked up enough debris to fill Chiefs' stadium 76 times," Decker said. "It was a ridiculous amount of debris." The debris was either mulched, composted or burned.
Phase three was curbside bag collection of debris from residents' yards; trimming remaining trees in the rights of way; and sweeping city streets, which was allotted 30 days for completion.
The cleanup cost the city $26.8 million. "We felt good about getting it all cleaned up," McHenry said. "It took 12 hours of work a day for 81 days."
McHenry said it was obvious the storm's aftermath would leave the city needing state and federal funding, and it would be only a matter of time until a state of emergency was announced. "FEMA comes in a pretty big way, because they deal with public [and] private property and set up a disaster-relief office," he said.
After the storm, the city realized it needed an improved and reliable emergency management office.
The city's emergency command center has advanced greatly compared to the makeshift office the task force used in the City Hall basement. "It's a very convenient location, and whenever we have an emergency now, we've all got our station," McHenry said.
"It's got everything; it's very modern and has upscale technology," Shaw said. "It looks like