January 29, 2008

SIUC to lead 17-county disaster readiness effort

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale officials today (Jan. 29) announced that faculty members will lead a $1.2 million, multi-county emergency preparedness effort funded by the federal government.

Nicholas Pinter, professor of geology in the College of Science at SIUC, is the lead investigator on the grant, which will assist 17 Southern Illinois counties in assessing their disaster risks and making plans for disaster mitigation. SIUC faculty will work with colleagues from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and with five Illinois regional planning commissions in assisting local agencies with writing pre-disaster mitigation plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — is funding the work, which Pinter said will continue through 2010. The money is administered through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

During a news conference this morning, Pinter and other officials outlined the community service program and its goals.

"This grant from FEMA will help each of these counties identify the risks they have and make plans to deal with any of those potential disasters," said Pinter, who began pursuing the grant about two years ago, along with members of The Polis Center at IUPUI. "Southern Illinois has a history of major disaster losses — from the great flood of 1993 to the tri-state tornado to the New Madrid earthquake. It makes sense that these counties prepare for events such as these and others."

The money will go to SIUC, IUPUI and the regional planning commissions that work with the 17 counties involved.

The counties include Pulaski, Massac, Union, Johnson, Jackson, Williamson, Franklin, Jefferson, Perry, Gallatin, Edwards, White, Crawford, Bond, St. Clair and Clinton. The city of Cairo, in Alexander County, also will participate in the project.

The regional planning organizations involved are the Southern Five Regional Planning Commission, Greater Egypt Regional Planning and Development Commission, Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission, Greater Wabash Regional Planning Commission and Southwestern Illinois Planning Commission.

Pinter said the grant will help officials meet federal standards for disaster planning.

"Each of these entities is required to look at the full range of possible disasters," he said. "They must assess the dangers before they can reduce their vulnerability."

Once the assessments and plans are in place, Pinter said each agency can ask for additional funding from FEMA to reduce the dangers. An example might include shoring up a river levee or building earthquake-resistant fire and police stations.

Pinter, along with Harvey Henson, a research project specialist in the geology department at SIUC, will bring expertise in earthquake, flooding and other geologic risks to the planning process. They, along with a number of graduate students, also will gather and help analyze data and work with regional planning commissions to help update databases, such as locations of schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure.

Researchers at The Polis Center at IUPUI will use computer software to model the effects of various disasters on certain geographic areas. The Polis Center is an interdisciplinary academic research organization focused on developing information about communities and applying such data to innovative solutions.

"The software can take a specific disaster, say an F5 tornado, and look at how it would impact an area," Pinter said. "It can look at the vulnerability and help us determine how we can mitigate that risk."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he was pleased FEMA recognized the need for federal assistance by local communities preparing for emergencies.

"These federal dollars will ensure that counties in Southern Illinois can engage in the planning and preparation necessary to limit the fallout from a potential disaster," Durbin said. "I commend SIUC for taking a leadership role in these efforts."

Pinter said the grant helps SIUC fulfill its community service mission.

"FEMA and IEMA have generously provided support to help these Southern Illinois counties prepare pre-disaster mitigations plans," he said. "Planning for disasters, rather than just reacting when they strike, is the best way to reduce damage and loss of life."