Earthquake tagged as biggest looming threat for Ark. residents
By Kristin Netterstrom
Copyright 2007 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.
PULASKI COUNTY, Ark. — Pulaski County Coroner Mark Malcolm travels to places tragedy visits to care for the dead.
While death's aftermath is hard for most people to witness, Malcolm said it's something he's good at handling. Another thing he said he's become good at, in part because of his travels for a Houston-based disaster management company, is planning how to respond to mass fatalities.
The biggest mass fatality threat looming over Arkansas is an earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, he told a crowd at the Clinton School of Public Service on Wednesday.
In Malcolm's mind, an earthquake in the zone — a series of faults that runs from southern Illinois to eastern Arkansas — overshadows the possibility of a potential pandemic flu breakout.
"I don't think it's a matter of if, but a matter of when," he said about an earthquake in Arkansas. It's been almost 200 years since several large earthquakes hit the area, but small tremors of about magnitude 2.2 have been registered this year.
The federal government's response after Hurricane Katrina has taught Malcolm that local governments shouldn't rely on federal agencies to act or clean up, he said.
Malcolm, who was recently appointed to an Federal Emergency Management Agency advisory council on emergency preparedness, has helped the Arkansas Department of Health create a mass fatality plan called the Arkansas Rapid Mortuary Response Plan.
The plan, which focuses on the actions of coroners, hospitals and agencies that handle the dead, can be adapted by any county or city dealing with a fatality situation that overwhelms them, Malcolm said.
"There are some places in Arkansas where that can be 10, 12 [dead people]," he said, adding that his $462,000 county budget is larger than that of several other county coroner offices combined.
The mortuary response plan, which was recently filed with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a part of the Health Department's planning for pandemic flu, said Ed Barham, a Health Department spokesman.
The state has received more than $2 million in the past two years to prepare its flu plan, which Barham said is one of the most complete plans in the country.
Although Arkansas hasn't had the best marks in the past for emergency preparedness, Malcolm credited the state for coming a long way since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
"Nobody wants to be the next Ray Nagin. Nobody wants to be the next Michael Brown," he said about the New Orleans mayor and the former FEMA director. Each faced criticism after the hurricane.
Malcolm, who helped identify bodies in Louisiana after Katrina, said there should be public and private partnerships established before emergencies that can be activated after a disaster.
Pulaski County, which updates its disaster response plan every year, is working with hospitals, law enforcement agencies and others on an evacuation plan for residents. The group will have a drill in December, said Kathy Botsford, the county's director of emergency management.
"You can have a plan, but you have to exercise these plans and get everyone together and run through it and see how effective it is," she said.
In June, first responders and other emergency officials from eight states, including Arkansas, spent three days practicing how to respond to a New Madrid earthquake in a drill conducted by the Central United States Earthquake Consortium of Memphis.
The simulation was based on having at least 2,000 deaths from a 7.7-magnitude earthquake.
Malcolm is hoping that when tragedy strikes Arkansas, the state is better prepared to respond than it probably was pre-Katrina and in December 2004 when a tsunami hit Thailand.
In Thailand, Malcolm helped build a morgue as an employee of Kenyon International Emergency Services Inc. Identifying people whose entire families were wiped out was complicated because officials had no way of knowing where the bodies originally came from, he said. Many were carried miles away by the floodwaters.
A recovery worker with proper training knows to record where a dead person was picked up and to collect belongings so the person can be identified and hopefully returned to family for burial, he said.