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Archive for Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Former Douglas County official working with tornado aftermath

May 30, 2007


Paula Phillips had no chance earlier this month to ease into her new job as training officer with the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.

On the night of May 4, a massive tornado leveled Greensburg. Phillips started her job three days later.

"I haven't done any training yet; all I've been doing is emergency operations center work," said Phillips, who directed Douglas County's Emergency Management Department for 19 years before she resigned in February.

Phillips has been to Greensburg, but most of her work since the tornado has been at the state's emergency operations center in Topeka. She's put in 12-hour days helping coordinate the recovery.

State emergency officials expect to be dealing with the Greensburg tornado aftermath for a long time, she said.

"They're in the recovery phase, and they're moving to that point where there will be some recovery specialists coming in who will assist the city and the county in resuming administration on a long-term basis," Phillips said.

Phillips has dealt with smaller disasters in Douglas County, including the March 2006 microburst in Lawrence and the May 2003 tornado that struck southwestern Lawrence. But dealing with the Greensburg disaster is teaching emergency departments some new lessons, she said.

"It has helped us identify some performance issues for which training could potentially be a solution," Phillips said.

For example, local governments that have never been through a disaster are not sure how the disaster declaration process works at the local, state and federal level, she said. A presidential disaster declaration doesn't necessarily mean federal damage assessment teams are coming in, she said.

"We need to make sure that people understand that FEMA doesn't come in with a checkbook," she said. "It's a reimbursement process : it's not upfront loans."

The state also learned "incident management teams" have worked well in Greensburg. The teams consist of volunteers from other Kansas counties and cities who have needed skills, including command, logistics and planning experience.

Several Douglas County government volunteers as well as police and firefighters have gone to Greensburg in recent weeks to serve on the teams.

"The incident management teams have worked really, really well," Phillips said. "Now we know we need to fine-tune it."

When Phillips is able to get to her regular duties, she will coordinate emergency management and homeland security training in Kansas.

Phillips left her Douglas County job in February without explanation. County leaders have declined to comment because it was a personnel matter. Phillips this week would only say that she left for "new opportunities."

A replacement for Phillips still hasn't been hired. County Administrator Craig Weinaug said the position had been advertised but he has not yet examined the applications. Teri Smith is interim director.


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