Wednesday July 23, 2014

Disasters! Are We Prepared?


Severe weather ripping through parts of the south recently spawned tornadoes resulting in injury and fatalities.  It certainly begs the question, “Is this a precursor to what we can expect from the tornado season this year?”

Last year brought record setting devastation to many parts of the United States as well as the world.  Earthquakes, wild fires, flooding, tornadoes, and straight line winds created destruction that will take years of recovery time.  While not as devastating as the Joplin, Missouri F5 multiple-vortex tornado, the Battle Creek area suffered their own carnage as a result of straight line winds over the 2011 Memorial Day weekend.  In fact, there are still remnants of that weekend that can be seen in various parts of the community.  

Behind the scenes of catastrophe there is a nucleus of individuals throughout our country that monitor potential emergency situations and sound warnings so people within a given community can brace for the inevitable.  They also are responsible for being the first to respond to the aftermath.  This is no minor undertaking.  Within our own county, we have such an individual.  With an office located within the impressive structure of the Calhoun County Justice Center, as part of the Calhoun County Office of the Sheriff, is the office of the Director of Emergency Management for Calhoun County.  While the Justice Center building is a very impressive structure, I found the Director of Emergency Management, Durk Dunham, to be even more impressive.  

Dunham, a former Administrator, Director of Admissions, and Interim Vice President at Olivet College, actually began working in Emergency Management twenty years ago while still fulfilling his responsibilities at Olivet College.  Wanting to volunteer his time and energy civically, he decided to become a voluntary, on call, firefighter in his community of Marshall, Michigan.  The City of Marshall sponsored him through the Fire Academy from which he graduated in 1992.  After becoming a volunteer fire fighter, he made some natural contacts within the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department.  The Sheriff’s Department then asked Dunham if he would be interested in joining the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services.  To which he enthusiastically agreed.  He became a storm chaser as well as a reserve, riding as the second person in the patrol car.  After moving from the Marshall area, Dunham had to leave the Marshall Fire Department because of proximity rules, but remained with the Sheriff’s Office to this day.  In 2008, Dunham was hired as the Director of Emergency Management for the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, a Board of Commissioners appointed position.  Bringing with him nearly two decades of volunteerism, a thorough understanding of the Sheriff’s office, as well as his executive management background, he entered the position with full knowledge of the responsibilities and the task before him.  

So what is the typical day in the life of the Director of Emergency Management for the county?  As you may suspect, there is no typical day.  According to Dunham, “before 9/11, we were basically storm chasers.  Since 9/11, everything changed”.  With the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the responsibilities of the position swelled proportionately.  “Now we have to be concerned about terrorism”, Dunham added.  This job is all about organization and time management.  According to Dunham, “A person in this position must possess heightened organizational and time management skills…if not, you will fail.  I am on call 24/7”.  Keeping up with the plethora of required compliance paperwork is the biggest challenge.  Dunham’s department is a one person department.   There are no assistants and no budgetary funds to be able to spread out the responsibilities.  As to vacation time, that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Dunham remains connected electronically.  

According to Dunham, the largest ongoing threat to Calhoun County is weather related.  Every storm is monitored very closely.    There are also critical infrastructure issues that must be monitored.  “For example”, Dunham states, “we have two major interstates that intersect and run through Calhoun County for which we are responsible.”  There are numerous concerns which vie for Dunham’s attention within the county.  As to other potential threats that may exist within the City of Battle Creek, the city has their own Emergency Management Team to handle those issues.

Recently, there were two major incidents in Calhoun County within a twelve month period that were escalated to a federal level, and even went to the White House.  One was the largest inland oil spill in the history of the country and the second was the Memorial Day straight line winds that wreaked havoc on Calhoun County residents and businesses.  

The oil spill is now etched as a major part of the history of Calhoun County.  While the clean-up efforts continue, Dunham has been very pleased with the cooperation expressed by Enbridge in the process.  He states, “I can’t imagine more cooperation from any other company.  I have never had to ask for anything twice.  Had we been working with a different company, it could have been a much bigger nightmare.”  While there are no guarantees, Dunham is hopeful that the diligent work with the EPA and Enbridge will result in portions of the river being open by sometime this summer.    

Regarding the recovery process in the aftermath of the straight line wind destruction over the Memorial Day weekend of 2011, Dunham indicates he has “mixed feelings”.   He also states, “The public never will realize how much evaluation went into the assessment of damage in order to apply for emergency help at the state and federal levels”.  Unfortunately the county did not receive all the funding it had hoped to receive.  The good news in this incident was that there was no major injury or loss of life as a direct result.  According to Dunham, “It is always safety first.  Our first priority was to get the right of way cleared enough so a fire truck size vehicle can get down the road.”  Given the amount of damage, the extremely unusual damage caused by the straight line winds, the amount of time it takes for evaluation and clean up, and the staggering cost of such an undertaking, overall, the outcome was positive.

When asked if local municipalities, the community at large, local business and industry, and the health care community are adequately prepared for a catastrophic event, Dunham indicated he is doubtful.  “I highly doubt that every business has an updated recovery plan”, says Dunham.  Some businesses and organizations will be much more prepared than others.  He further states, “Organizations have to take on the personal responsibility to make their own plans” for disaster recovery.  He references and as good resources to read about the basic foundation of a recovery plan.  

Even individual families should have a disaster recovery plan in place.  Dunham suggests, at bare minimum, each family should have prepared a working flashlight (with extra batteries), a battery operated am/fm radio (with extra batteries), and three days worth of water and non-perishable food.  He strongly emphasized that each individual needs to “take personal responsibility for themselves and their families.  Be in tune with what is going on.  Subscribe to a weather alert application on your cell phone, like the apps available through Newschannel 3, WOOD TV 8, and Fox 17.”

For individuals within the community that are interested in volunteering their time, the Calhoun County Emergency Management Division is always looking for volunteers for their Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).  Any volunteer who applies can anticipate going through a background check and the CERT classes consisting of CPR, basic first aid, and training on the specific role of the volunteer.  The volunteers completing this course will become authorized CERT Team members.  For information about how you can apply for this training, you may contact the CERT Coordinator, Lori Phillips, at 269.969.6444 or by e-mailing her at 

Be Prepared

Organizations, families, and individuals within the community must take on the responsibility to make their own plans for responding to emergency situations.

How to Apply for CERT Training

For information about how you can apply for CERT training, you may contact the CERT Coordinator, Lori Phillips, at 269.969.6444 or by e-mailing her at

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