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Earthquake drill trains local and state organizations for natural disasters

State and local public safety and health professionals held a variety of exercises throughout Cape Girardeau on June 4-5, simulating their response to earthquake damage in the area.

The drill was connected to the federal exercise “Shaken Fury,” simulating a 7.7 magnitude earthquake scenario along the southwest segment of the New Madrid Seismic Zone near Memphis, TN.

The Missouri National Guard and Missouri Task Force One flew into the city on helicopters, bringing equipment and personnel to train alongside Southeast Missouri’s Region E Homeland Security Response Team, SoutheastHEALTH’s emergency medical personnel and Southeast Missouri State University’s Department of Public Safety.

As part of the drill, a former women’s health center near Independence Street was partially demolished to simulate a collapsed building. Several “victims” were at the scene to be found and rescued.

Sean Mitchell, the deputy chief of operations at Jackson Fire Rescue, served as the incident commander for the drill on June 4. Mitchell stated it was “absolutely” the largest drill the regional homeland security response team has been a part of.

“We’ve trained multiple times throughout the year in order to prepare for this drill, to make sure our personnel are up to the speed, understand the equipment and understand what to do in a true drill like this,” Mitchell said. “This is probably as real of a drill as we are going to see.”

First, the walls of the building needed to be stabilized with wood and metal bracing. The ceiling and portions of the walls had collapsed, making several entrances to the building covered by concrete that had to be cut through using sledgehammers and hydraulic tools.

A team of dogs consisting of Toby and Georgia was sent into the wreckage to search for human scents, according to Lt. Derick Wheetley with Sikeston DPS. Wheetley said the dogs go in pairs because one is trained to search for survivors and the other is searching for human remains.

“The human body starts decomposing if it has been there a long time,” Wheetley said. “If you’re alive, you’re putting off a different scent. Obviously we are going to recover everybody, but we want to get to live humans first.”

The rescue team first sent victims to an on-site medical triage location nearby, where victims were assessed for the severity of their injuries before being sent to Southeast Hospital’s off-site location for further examination.

Lori Merritt, director of emergency services at Southeast Hospital, said patients were separated into three categories – Red, Yellow and Green. Red patients required immediate attention, yellow patients could receive delayed attention and green patients were considered “the walking wounded.”

Merritt said the drill was a great opportunity for the hospital’s staff to focus on their triage procedures and tracking patients through their treatment.

“It helps us prepare and plan ahead a little bit,” Merritt said. “It also allows us to identify some of our weak areas, so we can look at them and see if we can make improvements.”

Mitchell said the drill allows the different agencies to work together in a way that is not common during normal operations but is essential during natural disasters.

“When working with Missouri Task Force 1 and all these other agencies, we gain knowledge from them – as well as they gain knowledge from us,” Mitchell said. “[The drill gives us] the capability of working together and having a unified command system in order to achieve an overall goal of rescuing anybody who may be trapped in the structure.”

Mitchell added that coordination would be useful in any natural disaster situation and many of the actions they did at the collapsed building would work for both an earthquake and a tornado.

“The drill gives us a better understanding of what needs to be done, prioritizing those things and figuring out what we can do the fastest to get in there and get the victims out in a safe manner,” Mitchell said.

He added that constant training is needed to prepare for any natural disaster, with the regional homeland security response team preparing swift water rescue technicians and boat operators to be ready to go at any time due to the high flooding in the area.

“If anything happened in Region E, as soon as we got the notice, we can be out the door in 10-15 minutes to anyone who needs it,” Mitchell said.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at

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