By Dale Chambers, Public Safety Director, St. Louis Area Regional Response System
Where We Stand Preview blog posts represent the opinion of the author and do not represent the view of East-West Gateway of Governments. This post is part of the Where We Stand 7th Edition Preview Blog Series. View other posts in the series here.
Where We Stand provides a wide range of information about how the St. Louis region compares to the rest of the 50 most populous metro areas in the country. Some of that information is available to be used for planning for an emergency.
Many of the tables could be used to support emergency planning decisions in our region, providing dependable demographic data to what is normally a process that depends on intuition, instinct, and tradition. Knowing how many households do not have vehicles that can be used for evacuation, being aware of the region’s environmental hazards, and having an idea on the problems of the area’s transportation infrastructure can all contribute to better planning for emergencies.
Every emergency has its own unique challenge and because people are involved, there always is a list of unpredictable variables. No single table in Where We Stand is able to measure risk or preparedness in the region, but several can be particularly useful in developing the area’s emergency preparedness story.
One chart can be viewed as good news. Despite continuing to remain in the top 10 polluters, the St. Louis region continues to reduce the overall amount of toxic chemical releases to land, air, and water as well as improving its ranking when compared to other Midwest regions and the nation. Should the trend continue, and it appears that it is, potential risks with these products may also be declining. It is important for emergency managers and other responders to understand these trends. The trend might be limited to releases to the environment and not a reduction in the manufacturing volume. Overall, the table serves as only one measure of what chemicals are in our area and what could become dangerous to responders, and the public, should a fire or large spill occur.
Landing worse than the national average and in the middle of our peer regions, 8.3 percent of households in the St. Louis region do not have access to a vehicle. Thankfully, the region has not seen the need to evacuate residents as hurricane regions have, but if the region does need to evacuate due to a natural or manmade disaster, we need to plan for the more than 90,000 households in the region that do not have access to a vehicle.
Knowing how and where to move those cars efficiently during an emergency is important. Even without hurricanes, mass evacuation planning occurs in our region, primarily around the possibility of a massive earthquake. One of the first questions asked is, “will the bridges hold?” The simple answer today is, “many should.” Despite the efforts that have gone into shoring-up or in some cases rebuilding our transportation infrastructure, the region’s amount of deficient or functionally obsolete bridge deck area increased slightly since 2013, approaching 30 percent. Bridge deck and seismic integrity are different, but a rough ride appears to be likely either way.
We need to take all of these factors into account – toxic chemicals, no vehicle households, and deficient bridges, as well as many others, when preparing for emergencies. However, in the end, saving people is what emergency preparedness is about. A story that emerges in media, and is clearly told in Where We Stand, is about community members who perish due to heat or cold. A five year average of nearly one death for every 100,000 people ranks the St. Louis region 5th highest in a category that deserves attention.
There are many possible contributing factors to having so many temperature-related deaths, including: age, air quality, age of housing stock, income levels, whether someone lives alone, and general health behaviors and outcomes. St. Louis appears to have a history with significant numbers of temperature-related deaths. A study about the high number of deaths due to the 1966 heat wave reveals concerns, not only pertinent to that event 50 years ago, but also ongoing problems faced by today’s emergency managers. The study states the “morbidity and mortality experiences in St. Louis during the July 1966 heat wave illustrate problems that are pertinent to general health care and to civil defense shelter management.” This includes that “excessive heat can be a primary cause of death…or a contributing cause.” With these kinds of numbers, preparing for temperature related emergencies continues to be important. Since a temperature related death is likely to occur at an individual’s home, and not at a single disaster location, it is important the entire community takes steps to prepare for an emergency.
For emergency preparedness, it is not all doom and gloom for St. Louis. On the contrary, the region coordinates resources well and comes together as a community when emergencies occur. In our region, emergency preparedness and planning is not limited to firefighters and other first responders. As the accompanying tables show, it takes many people and agencies to create the right plans for the region. As science and data are applied to lessons learned through experience, responders and planners can add that perspective to their natural, intuitive tendencies. As this research and planning is used to manage real world emergencies, future editions of Where We Stand could reveal the progress that has been made in the St. Louis region.
FHWA Collects New Data to Bolster Bridge Inspections. FHWA 30-15. U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. April 27, 2015. Accessed April 29, 2015 from http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/pressroom/fhwa1530.cfm
An Analysis of the Heat Deaths in St. Louis During July, 1966. American Journal of Public Health. Dec 1969. Accessed April 27 2015 from http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdfplus/10.2105/AJPH.59.12.2232