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Montana Emergency Preparedness Teams Demonstrate Resilience

Montana has spent the past decade building its capacity for a multitude of potentially hazardous events.

March 8, 2012

In the wake of 9/11, public health professionals have learned the importance of preparing for emergencies. Although the sparsely populated state of Montana is less likely to be the target of a terrorist attack, it too has spent the past decade building its capacity for a multitude of potentially hazardous events.

In 2011, record rain and snowfall put those emergency plans to the test. Roundup (pop. 1,700), on the banks of the Musselshell River, was one of the worst-hit towns in the state.

In early June, displaced residents began returning to the homes and businesses from which they had been evacuated two weeks earlier. As people began to survey the damage, the town was hit by a second round of floods. Again, the normally placid trickle of a river turned into a deluge. It completely cut off the city, including the route to two full-care hospitals in Billings. When a local bridge became impassable, the one-hour drive south to Billings suddenly turned into a six-hour detour to the east. An alternative small hospital remained accessible north of the city, but it too was threatened by the flooding as a neighboring dam neared its breaking point.

Dayle Perrin, Montana’s Hospital Preparedness Coordinator, praised the work of the hospital in Roundup. Perrin explained, "Their staff really stepped up and kept everything going smoothly." They were also able to capitalize on the previously established Montana Health Care Mutual Aid Agreement that enabled area hospitals to share employees and supplies in case of emergencies like this. Fortunately, they did not see a surge in patients as a result of the flooding.

It was a scenario that played out again and again as a state of emergency was declared for all but three of Montana's 56 counties. "It was so widespread," Perrin commented. "Even on the Fourth of July we still had very high water." Thankfully, readiness measures like the mutual aid agreement meant hospitals maintained continuity of care and patients did not suffer.

In Billings, six inches of water ran through the streets, but pumps installed at the hospital kept the patients and building dry. In Glasgow (pop. 3,205), the Milk River spilled its banks and reached a record-high crest of 34.08 feet. Even though the hospital was protected by a dyke, staff had practiced evacuation drills to move out patients, medical records, and equipment if necessary. The Crow Agency Indian Health Service Hospital had to put their emergency plans into action, as flooding overwhelmed sewage systems and necessitated an evacuation.

The Public Health Emergency Preparedness Section (PHEP) manages the health, medical, and sheltering responsibilities for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). To ensure a coordinated response, their staff gathered information regarding sheltering needs, the availability of drinking water, impacts to health care operations, and water levels from affected and potentially affected local and tribal health jurisdictions, hospitals, and long-term care facilities. To provide an accurate picture of the statewide situation, they summarized and shared the information in daily conference call briefings for all interested local and tribal health jurisdictions, hospitals, and partner agencies.

Said Perrin, ”It was over a month of briefings. From May through June, the calls became routine." On a daily basis, the DPHHS team updated the list of at-risk facilities and ensured there were no evacuation threats or water and sewer issues. In places like Crow Agency, where many citizens as well as the hospital and long term care facility did have to evacuate, DPHHS coordinated efforts with the American Red Cross to ensure displaced patients had food and beds.

The 2010-11 winter was one of the snowiest on record in Montana with snowfalls in some parts of the state totaling over 100 inches. In previous years, the tributaries of the Missouri River divert melting snow downriver, eventually draining into the Mississippi River. However, the abundance of melting snow and record rainfall amplified the process and transformed the river system’s natural cycle into hazardous flooding.

Throughout the protracted flooding, Montana’s emergency preparedness efforts demonstrated how mutual aid and coordinated communication protect health. When the waters finally began to recede, DPHHS was there to provide information to communities about the clean-up. "Flood water is incredibly dirty," Perrin described. "We made sure people knew how to clean up safely, using bleach and gloves so that mold wouldn't set in."

The challenges of the 2011 flooding were many, but Montana public health workers discovered that all their preparedness work had paid off. Local, state, and tribal public health workers had the relationships and protocols in place to keep the public safe.

 

Slideshow: Click on a small image to see a larger version.

  • Montana flooding 01
  • Montana flooding 02
  • Montana flooding 03
  • Montana flooding 04
  • Montana flooding 05
  • Montana flooding 06
  • Montana flooding 07
  • Montana flooding 08
  • Montana flooding 09
  • Montana flooding 10
  • Montana flooding 11
  • Montana flooding 12
Montana flooding 01

The winter of 2010-2011 brought Montana record snowfall.

Montana flooding 02

With record snowfall, Montana officials expected larger amounts of water
from melting snow in the spring.

Montana flooding 03

In addition to the snow melt, Montana received record rainfall in the spring
of 2011.

Montana flooding 04

Flooding in Crow Agency, Montana which experienced loss of their water
system, had a nursing home evacuation, and had a hospital evacuation.

Montana flooding 05

Flooding in Glasgow, Montana which lasted longer than three months and
has an even longer agricultural impact.

Montana flooding 06

Flooding in Glasgow, Montana took down roads and bridges.

Montana flooding 07

Flooding in Glasgow, Montana required extensive local planning.

Montana flooding 08

Flooding in Roundup, Montana made certain parts only accessible by air
drop and some by boat for two weeks.

Montana flooding 09

Flooding in Billings, Montana which was of short duration but made the
city realize its need for flood emergency planning.

Montana flooding 10

Flooding in Billings, Montana.

Montana flooding 11

Flooding in Billings, Montana.

Montana flooding 12

The red counties show where floods were declared in Montana in the
spring of 2011.