After East Palestine, local leaders ask: Are we ready for a disaster like that?

One of the first thoughts many had upon seeing the mass of crumpled, burning tanker cars derailed off of a Norfolk Southern line in East Palestine, Ohio was: ‘Wow, I'm glad that didn't happen here.’ Followed by: “Hmmm … could it happen here?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

Not only could it happen, it has. Just last week, 10 cars on the Cincinnati Eastern Railroad near the Brown County village of Sardinia jumped the tracks. Fortunately, they were carrying nothing more dangerous than a load of gravel. Last month, 80 miles north of Cincinnati in Springfield, 28 cars of a 212-car train derailed. Fortune again protected that community, as none of the cars were carrying hazardous materials, and the four tanker cars involved happened to be empty.

That was the fourth derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio in five months, prompting Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio to state, "Ohio communities should not be forced to live in fear of another disaster." 

But disasters do happen. And we live with the probability that they will occur. For the towns, cities, villages, and townships around Greater Cincinnati, preparing for and responding to disasters is a priority, and often accomplished with limited means, says Ryan McEwan, assistant director of Hamilton County Emergency Management.

“I would love to say that the government has billions of dollars that we are going to give to your communities to be able to mitigate all these hazards,” he says. “Unfortunately, realistically, that's just not the case. We have to accept the fact that there's a finite amount of time and resources that we're going to be able to spend to prepare for these.”

McEwan urges leaders in these communities to assess the risks in their towns, not just from the railroads, but from natural disasters, gas pipelines, barge traffic, trucks, power failures, infrastructure collapses, terrorism … the list could go on, but the point is made. Disasters can and will happen, and we should be prepared.

He urges community leaders to “ask the question: what are those threats and hazards that could impact us where we live that we are most concerned about?”  With limited resources, directing preparedness plans to respond to the most likely problems is wise, he says.

In the village of Addyston, population 927, Dan Pillow still recalls with clarity March 26, 1976. At the time, he was mayor of the far west side river community and had just returned home from his office when he heard a rumbling. He looked out his window to see smoke billowing from the village’s biggest employer. The Monsanto chemical plant had exploded.

Unsure of whether to order a general evacuation or not, and lacking communication with the plant, Pillow eventually saw that Monsanto was evacuating its employees, and he made his decision. In an age before cell phones, email, and text alerts, he called WLW radio and asked them to broadcast his evacuation order. Village police traveled the streets using loudspeakers to urge residents to get to safer ground, and a group of volunteers helped evacuate people without cars. Residents gathered up the hill at what was then Three Rivers Junior High.

The plant, now owned by British chemical manufacturer Ineos Group, has been a source of concern for Addyston residents for decades since. But Pillow points out that it’s not the only potential hazard for the village. U.S. 50 bisects the entire community, carrying truck traffic. Addyston is bordered by the Ohio River and its barges ferrying chemicals, and the community sits under an air path.

Pillow, who has served Addyston as mayor and council member for more than 20 years, called a recent presentation by McEwan on emergency management “an eye opener.” It’s encouraged him to ask council to revisit Addyston’s emergency preparedness plan.

It's easy to become complacent, he says, as years go by without a problem. But calamities will inevitably occur, and in this region, weather, especially floods and tornados, are often the cause. The nature of hazards have shifted over the years, McEwan says. Extreme heat and cold now present more of a danger than 20 years ago, he says.

On the morning of Jan. 21, 2013, a snowburst cut visibility on Interstate 275 in Colerain Township to near zero, resulting in the largest pileup in Ohio history—more than 80 vehicles, a disaster that caused the death of a 12-year-old girl. Police, fire, and EMS units from eight surrounding jurisdictions responded.  

In September 2008, a dry hurricane, the spinoff from Hurricane Ike, hit the region with 70 mph winds over a day, knocking out power to nearly everyone, and up to a week or longer for some.

On April 8, 1999, an F4 tornado struck the region, intensifying as it hit Blue Ash and Montgomery, killing four people and destroying more than 200 homes.

The region’s legacy of manufacturing means there are facilities all over the region that store, transport, and process hazardous materials. Mishaps can be disastrous.

In July 1990, multiple explosions ripped through the BASF chemical plant in the heavily populated city of Norwood, killing one person, injuring more than 60, and shattering windows in houses and businesses more than a quarter mile away.

Smaller fires and explosions happen more routinely. Just last month in the village of St. Bernard, a “small, isolated” explosion at the Emery Oleochemicals plant resulted in nitrogen gas escaping inside the plant. Officials said the larger community was not at risk.

A six-alarm fire gutted the Reliable Castings building in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Camp Washington in early March. No one was killed but the fire caused smoke and water damage to surrounding properties.         

“Hazardous materials releases are probably one of the most significant hazards within Hamilton County,” McEwan says. More than 650 facilities in the county keep hazardous substances onsite. Of those, more than 300 have chemicals classified as “extremely hazardous” by the U.S. EPA, chemicals that could cause “serious, irreversible health effects” in the event of an accidental release.

McEwan says his office maintains a database of these facilities and what they’re storing, and shares that with local fire departments. His office has also modeled worst-case scenarios for every one of those facilities and helps train fire departments on how to respond in the event of an accident.

But those factories and warehouses are just the tip of the iceberg. “It's not just the facilities that we're concerned about,” McEwan says. “It's the transportation of hazardous materials through our communities that is also concerning.”

CSX and Norfolk Southern, two of the biggest railroads in the U.S., both operate dozens of trains a day from Cincinnati, and their lines run throughout the region’s communities. A rail line runs hard by the city of Wyoming, and residents there, as in every community where trains run, are largely in the dark about what all those trains are hauling. The railroads own the tracks and they are regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration, not the local communities.

“We and the communities along the rails are entirely subject to self-control by the railroads,” explains Jim O’Reilly. O’Reilly has served on Wyoming City Council for more than 20 years and has chaired a county emergency response committee.

He recommends a few simple steps for localities to prepare for an East Palestine type event in their communities:
  • Map the rail lines and all the residences, medical facilities and businesses within two blocks. Designate a public space such as a parking lot as an evacuation point.
  • Coordinate cooperation and mutual assistance among fire departments.
  • Draft a community outreach plan using whatever communication method is best: sirens, email, text alerts, and so on.
  • Prepare options for group transportation, such as Metro buses.
  • Designate a key communicator who will keep the community updated.
McEwan agrees with those steps and adds that working closely with media should be part of a communication plan, as should monitoring social media to try and get ahead or respond to misinformation that may be spread through those channels. 

Big picture, McEwan recommends elected officials ask themselves, What are we doing to make sure there are no failures of leadership? What are we doing to take care of our residents? 

"Because when these disasters hit, I guarantee you'll be in a better position to be able to respond and recover.”

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.