Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seabrook, Texas Shelters In Place

At about 8:45 this morning, a tank at the American Acryl chemical plant in Seabrook, Texas exploded, releasing a massive amount of black smoke and fumes into the air.  The blast shook buildings throughout the town and as far away as Houston, 30 miles away.  The fire was out within about an hour, and the only injuries were two workers who inhaled some fumes.  Local residents and all of the schools in the surrounding area were asked to shelter in place following the explosion.

This raises an interesting question.  Do you know what sheltering in place is?  If you got an order to do it, would you know what to do?  If you're not in emergency management, crisis response or a first responder, you may well not.  And that's a problem because, unfortunately, emergency managers don't always speak plain English when they're giving information.  The clear directive to shelter in place may seem obvious to them, but it isn't necessarily to us.

In case you're still wondering, sheltering in place is a lot like what it sounds like.  It means staying where you are and not going outside.  Depending on the circumstances, it might also mean going to the lowest level of the building or to the highest levels (in the case of chemical agents that are settling down).  It may or may not involve locking and securing doors and windows, depending on whether the hazard is something like a chemical spill or something like a bank robber running through the neighborhood.

Sheltering in place may not seem like a big deal, and it probably isn't if you only have to do it for an hour or two.  In Michigan, we are actually required to practice sheltering in place at least once a year, which basically entails telling everyone to come inside, locking the doors and taking attendance.  We can imagine situations, however, where people have to shelter in place for several days -- for example, if a chemical plant is burning and the fire isn't put out quickly.

Most homes are pretty poorly equipped to shelter in place for any length of time.  Most of us have enough food for several days, but most of us don't have enough water if the water supply is contaminated.  Schools are even worse -- most schools don't have even one day's supply of food and water for all staff and students, let alone facilities for sleeping.  I can imagine nothing much worse, as a Principal, than having to keep students overnight.  In fact, when I teach CISM classes I use such a scenario as a training exercise.  It's that bad.

I'm glad the fire is out in Seabrook and the danger seems to have passed.  I'm glad all those kids got to go home at the regular time and sleep in their own beds, and the residents are going about their daily business.  But I wonder how long it will be before something like this happens and really shuts down a school district or a county.  I know for sure, we're not really ready.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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