Bigfork Forms Citizen Group to Prepare for Natural Disasters

By Beacon Staff

Floodwaters look like a distinct possibility for the Flathead this spring, and a new group in Bigfork is taking steps to assist emergency responders by preparing citizens for natural disasters.

The Bigfork Emergency Response Team held a public meeting on April 21 at Bigfork Elementary, introducing the idea to the locals and providing disaster preparedness information.

The goal is “to be prepared and to be a support system for our emergency service personnel,” said BERT member Cheryl Richmond. “There are things we can do, and part of what we can do is educate ourselves.”

With the snowpack at more than 150 percent of the average in some places in Flathead County, the looming threat of creeping waters provided the drive behind the group’s formation. The goal is to be able to be self-sufficient for three or four days if roads and bridges are washed out and help can’t get there right away, BERT member Bruce Nelson said.

About 40 Bigfork residents attended the meeting. Participants heard flood preparation tips from officials from Flathead and Lake counties, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.

Flathead County Office of Emergency Services Deputy Director Cindy Mullaney told the crowd that they should have a 72-hour emergency kit, an evacuation plan and a way to stay informed if a flood occurs.

These preparations include having two meeting places if a disaster happens, she said, one inside the house and another located outside. Residents should also identify an out-of-state contact in case local phone lines are disrupted, she said.

The pre-emergency steps would apply in any disaster situation, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions, Mullaney said, but there is a high likelihood Flathead residents will experience some flooding this spring.

“We’ve been told by the weather service that it’s not a matter of if we flood, it’s when we flood,” Mullaney said. “To what extend, no one can really tell us that.”

Mullaney said definitions matter when it comes to flooding, because the federal government designates any event that covers two or more acres in water or affects more than two properties as a flood.

She noted that the weather will play a major part in flooding potential. If the weather stays cool, it will push flood incidences back, Mullaney said. Ideally, the spring days would be warm and the nights would cool off to give the rivers a chance to recover from the swell of snowmelt.

“We’re planning for the worst case and hoping for the best case,” Mullaney said.

Planning includes sandbags, of which the county has 40,000 to 50,000 waiting. The sandbags are typically used to shore up public infrastructure, but Mullaney said the county commission agreed to make them available to the public, as well as sand to fill them.

The bags would be made available if the flooding danger becomes clear. Mullaney suggested the Bigfork group work with civic and school groups to help fill the bags.

“It’s the old-fashioned, hard work, fill-‘em-and-stack-‘em,” Mullaney said.

In the event of a flood, Mullaney said the OES would set up a public information center staffed by volunteers. The Red Cross would also be available to help affected residents and their animals.

Charlie Comer, representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he has about 200,000 sandbags in storage in Libby, and access to 1.5 million in Seattle if necessary.

He told the Bigfork residents that it is important to be prepared to survive on their own for three days in the event of a natural disaster.

“Most of the time we can get to you in 72 hours,” Comer said.

Members of the crowd reminisced about the flood of 1964, asking questions about anchoring propane and sewage tanks as well as what to do when the ground water rises with the river.

Comer suggested buying sump pumps and asked the residents to work together when laying out sandbags.

“What you do upstream affects everybody downstream,” Comer said.

Mullaney told the crowd that there would likely be a couple of days notice if evacuations are necessary since they won’t be dealing with flash floods. She reminded residents to use an emergency evacuation checklist if necessary.

This checklist suggests storing the following items in an easy-to-carry container: medicines; first aid kit; important documents, such as mortgage and birth certificate papers; cash or checks; clothing and bedding; enough water for a gallon per person per day; food; irreplaceable items; pet supplies and hygiene items.

After the meeting, Mullaney said the Bigfork residents are taking the right steps by planning ahead. Nelson said BERT is trying to spread its preparation messages through churches and civic groups as well.

For river level information, visit www.wrh.noaa.gov/mso/hydrology/composites.php. For more information on 72-hour kits, visit www.ready.gov.

For more information on the Bigfork Emergency Response Team, visit www.bigforkemergencyinfo.org.

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