Photo by Donna Kallner

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Like many rural communities, my area is getting a crash course in Emergency Management. Ours started last July when a derecho storm damaged a quarter of a million acres of forest.

The immediate impact was impassable roads, trees on homes and vehicles, extended power outage, elders having to choose between using a generator to run the air conditioner for their health and losing the contents of their freezer, inability to get home oxygen resupplied, exhausted emergency responders and the list goes on. 

As a federal disaster area, the work continued long after immediate needs were met. There’s a lot of paperwork involved for local government. There’s a lot more work to be done for us to feel really ready for the next big challenge. We assumed that would be wildland fires starting this spring: Debris from storm damage puts us at high risk for the next few years.

Enter Covid-19. Now, with emergency management plans not quite fully updated, we have a pandemic. Other rural areas that have been hit by wildland fires, flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, damaging winter storms and other disasters –  natural and man-made – might be in a similar quandary.

How does your part-time township clerk get an emergency management plan updated while meeting FEMA deadlines related to a past disaster, while coming up with a plan for voting that meets the current and possibly changing Covid-19 guidelines for public gatherings?

How does your county emergency manager make a timely and effective response to the Next Big Crisis without updated emergency plans from the townships and villages within his or her jurisdiction? I can guarantee they won’t have time to call a cousin to track down current cell phone numbers for the local officials who must request resources, according to incident command protocols. 

How does your local volunteer fire department, which is short-handed at the best of times, meet the needs of a community facing pandemic? Our department does have Covid-19 protocols in place now. One is that members who think they might have been exposed to the virus or who have traveled out of state not respond to pages for 14 days. We want to flatten the curve, too, and hopefully lessen the impact on medical facilities and personnel, which are already in short supply in rural areas.

You may not see your local elected officials at church or at the coffee shop for a while. But you can call or email them. Ask what your township or village or county Emergency Management Plan entails, and when it was last updated. It might help to first read a little about emergency management and disaster preparedness

I get that you’re busy trying to work from home while your kids are out of school, or desperately trying to find child care so that you can go to work. I get that you’re busy cleaning closets to keep calm since you ran out of chocolate two long days ago. I get that your hands are full, your pockets are empty, you just want this to all be over so things get back to normal. I get that you have little energy in reserve to use advocating for a plan you hope never to use.

But Covid-19 aside, wildland fire season will come. Tornado season will come. Other disasters will come. Once again, rural people will step up and do what it takes to meet the needs of the moment. But it sure would be nice to have a plan in place. Even if it’s just a template for who contacts who and what to ask. 

Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin.