Small communities need to plan for big disasters

The explosion of a fertilizer plant in Texas almost one year ago can offer lessons to other 
rural communities when it comes to preparing for the worst

Explosion site in a small town.

You might think you live in a sleepy rural community — one where “nothing ever happens” — but you’ll want to think again when it comes to planning for disaster management.

“Just because you’re a small community, it doesn’t mean it’s not gonna happen,” said Frank Patterson, director of the Waco-McLennan County office of emergency management in Central Texas.

Last April 17, he was unwinding at home when a call came in for a fire at a fertilizer plant in the town of West, Texas.

Speaking at the annual Disaster Management Conference in Winnipeg, Patterson told attendees how before he even arrived on the scene that spring evening, the plant had exploded — killing 12 first responders and two civilians. More than 160 people were injured, some critically, and the town of fewer than 3,000 residents was left to deal with the disaster without many of its key emergency personnel.

Advance planning

Mature man.
Frank Patterson, director of the Waco-McLennan County office of emergency management in Central Texas speaks to emergency planners in Manitoba. photo: Shannon VanRaes

Luckily, advance planning meant that there was an excellent understanding of how each role worked and Patterson stepped in as incident commander.

“Typically, areas that have a high population also have the resources available to deal with issues,” he said. “Whereas with a smaller community — a rural community or agricultural community, where you have 30, 40 miles between your next biggest city — it’s more important in some respects to have those mutual aid agreements in place because you don’t have the resources you need.”

Mutual aid is an agreement between jurisdictions to provide assistance in the event an emergency requires more resources than any one municipality can provide.

Manitoba saw its largest-ever use of mutual aid in the fall of 2011, when approximately 160 volunteers came together from 27 rural fire departments to fight a wildfire in the Sandilands area.

“It’s crucially important that small communities reach out to their neighbours, but also that they plan,” Patterson stressed. “Ultimately at the end of the day all disasters begin local and end local, when everybody goes home, you’re left, so it’s important that you have that plan.”

Today, planning includes recognizing that rural and even remote locations can be connected to the entire world via social media. No longer does an accredited news agency need to send people to a scene and wait for them to return before heading to print. Now, anyone with a cellphone can take to Twitter and broadcast information — information that is often incorrect.

“Before April 17, I would have told you social media is no big deal, but… having lived through it, I will tell you it is vitally important,” the director said.

Social media

Within hours of the fertilizer plant exploding a Twitter feed dedicated to the disaster appeared, while existing social media accounts also took up the cause.

The result?

Dozens of fire departments not called to respond appeared on the scene as accounts of the aftermath varied widely. And, as unneeded emergency personnel were turned away, tempers flared, feelings were hurt and the regional highway was clogged with vehicles.

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Social media also spurred on a tsunami of clothing donations, despite the fact that few people lost their personal possessions in the blast, even if their homes would later be demolished. So much clothing was received that it had to be moved off site, leading to additional online rumours that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was stealing the donations.

“It’s bad information from well-intentioned people… people hear it, they repeat it, it becomes fact,” he said. “Social media is important.”

So is learning from these types of tragedies.

Anywhere that sees industry such as agriculture or manufacturing mix with residential areas, or infrastructure such as highways and railroads, a balance needs to be stuck, Patterson said.

“Economic development is key to any community surviving, you’ve got to have a tax base… but you’ve got to balance safety with economic development and residential areas,” he said, adding that new regulations around fertilizer manufacturing and building codes would likely be the end result of the West Fertilizer Company explosion.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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