Getting Ready for Disaster

It’s probably not at the top of your “what if” list, but what if downtown Pittsburgh was the victim of massive flooding, a severe power outage or — God forbid – a terrorist attack? It’s not something any of us want to think about – but there are a group of people who prepare for the worst-case scenario every day. Yesterday, I was given a rare glimpse inside their world.

Pitt, along with CMU and WVU, hosted a preparedness exercise on the Oakland campus Monday. The exercise is modeled after a similar drill conducted in New York City after 9/11. Monday’s exercise was focused on the business community would react in the face of terror.

Inside the control room for exercise with ( left to right ) Jim Powers, Homeland Securiy Director for PA, Linda Ambroso from Pitt Center for National Preparedness and Rick Doten, Exercise Coordinator from Verizon

We had experts in security from all fields — from utility companies to banks — playing roles in a disaster scenario that hit Allegheny county the week of Thanksgiving. The whole exercise was tied together by sophisticated computerized simulation program.

I did more than observe. I played the role of the media — going between groups, doing interviews and press conference and disseminating information which I would “broadcast” via the computer system. The entire exercise was an eye opener for me. I learned the value of effective communication between groups in a disaster – and how deadly it could be if officials hold back critical information during a crisis.

I thought that – overall – these groups did very well dealing with the media and using it for the greater good. Still, I understand how the lack of communication could prove critical in such a scenario. I also had a chance to chat with the state’s homeland security director – Jim Powers. Nice guy and we shared some common bonds – both of us once called Alabama home. When the day was said and done, I asked him the question I think we all have when we hear about possible disasters – are we completely safe?

His answer says as much about how much progress has been as it does about how far we still need to go?
His answer? No.

Look for my complete and exclusive story on the disaster exercise on Channel 4 Action News tonight at 5pm.
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