The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 31, 2012

Assessing risks to keep community safe, justify funding

By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO —  

When Homeland Security officials are looking at risks for terrorism or natural disasters in southern Minnesota, they like to see things in numerical terms.

The storage facility for the Williams Pipeline and the Highway 14 bridge over the Minnesota River might get a 2.75 or maybe a 3.2.

The numbers for Mankato’s water supply and sewer system could be a little higher, or maybe a little lower.

The threat of an animal activist group breaking into a dairy or hog farm and sending hundreds of cows or pigs wandering across Nicollet County’s rural roads would likely fall lower on the scale.

For Minnesota Department of Public Safety employees trying to explain to federal authorities what the real risks are in the Mankato area, those numbers help make things simple and consistent. But Grant Hosmer, DPS critical infrastructure coordinator, explained to a room full of area emergency managers that arriving at each number is really a complex process that requires their expertise.

After the first leg of a two-day training session was over Thursday, Eric Weller, Blue Earth County’s deputy emergency management coordinator, said he others were ready to do some math. Looking at the potential for disasters in counties surrounding Mankato, and how to deal with them if they occur, is nothing new, he said. So those at the meeting are ready to provide the state with the information it needs.

“We understand that, during a big event, we all have to work together because none of us have all the resources we would need in a serious situation,” Weller said. “It’s all about collaborations, identifying risks and applying what we know. Now we’re taking it to the next level.”

Before each risk number can be calculated, the potential risks have to be identified, Hosmer said. That’s where the state needs the most assistance from people who actually live in the area.

 And emergency managers, emergency responders and area law enforcement agencies aren’t the only resources needed for an accurate assessment, he said. Business owners and residents are also needed to help identify risks.

Hosmer listed what Homeland Security refers to as the five “critical life line sectors” to describe things everyone depends on: power, water, communication, transportation systems and emergency services. A major disruption to any one of them, by a natural disaster or some deliberate incident, could result in what would be considered a serious risk.

About 85 percent of the state’s critical infrastructure — such as fuel and electricity distribution, power production, and cable and telephone communications — are controlled by private businesses. That’s why their input is important, Hosmer said.

“We need to get the community’s help to understand the risks and our vulnerabilities,” he said. “Those are the people who really know.”

Once potential risks are identified, there is a four-step process, which the state describes as its Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment, that is used to describe each risk with a number.

A tornado, a disaster easily understood by anyone who has lived in the area during the past 10 or 15 years, was used as an example.

The first step is to determine the probability that a tornado will hit a certain area. If it’s likely to happen within the next year, the risk will receive a higher number on a scale ranging from one to four. If the event is expected to happen within the next decade or longer, it receives a lower number.

What resources the area has to respond to the disaster are considered for the second step. If a large tornado hits a city and “massive” help will be needed from state and federal agencies, the number is higher. A low number is given to a small tornado that causes damage that can be dealt with within a few days and with little state help.

How much warning can be expected before the tornado hits is the third consideration. How long the damage will keep people from their day-to-day lives is the fourth step. The formula for arriving at the final number is a bit complex, giving more value to the probability of an event happening and how severe it could be.

There is also a financial value for local leaders to get involved with assessing risks in the region and doing that job accurately, Hosmer said. Once the information is gathered, it will be used to justify the need for federal grants in a continually shrinking pool of federal money.