TEMA area coordinator Todd Jones (left) consults with Hawkins County assistant EMA director Jamie Miller and EMA volunteer Andy Kenner during Tuesday's mock disaster evacuation. (photo by Jeff Bobo)
ROGERSVILLE — Shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday a wildfire hit the Holston Army Ammunition Plant production area fueled by 30 mph winds, but Hawkins County had already managed to evacuate one mile radius around the plant.
That meant relocating 5,000 to 6,000 people, several child daycare centers and a large nursing home.
They even got out the pets.
Of course that entire scenario existed on radio and computer communications only as part of TennCat 2013 exercise — a statewide evacuation drill focused on a catastrophic disaster the eastern region of the state.
Several agencies participated in the drill including emergency rescue services, law enforcement, the Red Cross, the Health Department, the state Forestry Division, local ham radio operators, the Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency and TEMA.
Throughout the day Tuesday the group was staged in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Hawkins County Central dispatch office in Rogersville.
They knew going into the exercise that the scenario involved months of draught which has resulted in wildfires across the eastern region of the state.
Tuesday morning a lightening strike sparked a forest fire in eastern Hawkins County.
As the situation grew worse — based on updates issued regularly by the state EOC in Nashville — the local and state agencies in Rogersville were expected to make “real time” decisions.
Shortly before noon they were informed that the Forestry Division was unable to stop the fire which was eastbound headed straight for the HAAP explosives production area, fueled by 30 mph wind gusts.
“From that point on it was all hands on deck for an evacuation, to get everybody moved out of the area within a one mile radius of BAE (the ammunition plant), and move them west,” said Hawkins County EMA director Gary Murrell. “We estimated that 5,000 to 6,000 people had to be evacuated. We utilized school buses from county school system and set up our shelter at Volunteer high School. We didn’t want to move them east because the fire and smoke was being driven into Kingsport and Sullivan County by the wind, and they were going to be having their own problems.”
Murrell added, “We evacuated several child daycare centers in the area, we evacuated the Baysmont assisted living and nursing home facility in Allandale, including 35 who had to be located in other nursing homes or the Rogersville hospital due to their health situations.”
After the evacuation was completed, sometime between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., the state ended the scenario.
Todd Jones, who is TEMA’s area coordinator for the eastern region, commented that the Hawkins County group was proactive throughout the exercise. Instead of waiting for the next situation update they were anticipating their next move and preparing to put it into effect.
“The focus for us this year is wildfires,” Jones told the Times-News. “Instead of fighting the fires we’re focusing on everything else that happens. Communications, evacuations, health concerns, essentially everything other than fighting the fire.”
Murrell said the exercise had many benefits for those who participated. For example, they determined who they need to call for various services or assistance, and whose phone numbers they need at their fingertips at all times.
It also reinforced in everyone’s mind what each agency’s responsibilities are, whether that be coordinating shelters, emergency transportation, medical treatment, or even pet evacuation which would be handled by the UT Agricultural Extension Agencies DART (Disaster Animal Response Team).
Murrell said one thing he realized is this wildfire scenario presented by the state could actually happen in Hawkins County.
“You wouldn’t think about it, but it could,” Murrell added. “The group we had today worked good together, everybody had good ideas, and the end result was what we wanted. Before the state called it off we were planning further ahead than the scenario they had scripted for us. I don’t think the state had any idea what this group of people can do. We plan ahead.”