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Mock disaster drill at Skyline High School goes off without a hitch

By Ben Orcutt -- borcutt@nvdaily.com

Volunteer Dale Vartell checks on his stepdaughter
Volunteer Dale Vartell, of Winchester, checks on his stepdaughter Leah Swartwout, 11, as she naps on cot inside the gymnasium at Skyline High School on Monday morning during a mock hurricane response drill. Rich Cooley/Daily

Kris Schindler as one of the volunteer citizens
Marie Manuel, beneftis program specialist with Warren County Social Services, interviews Kris Schindler, 17, of Front Royal as one of the volunteer citizens seeking shelter at Skyline High School in Front Royal on Monday. Local officials conducted a mock hurricane response drill that utilized the high school as an emergency shelter. Rich Cooley/Daily

David Andrews snacks on a doughnut
David Andrews, 18, of Front Royal, snacks on a doughnut at Skyline High School on Monday during a disaster response drill. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL -- Local, regional and state emergency management officials were pleased with the outcome of Monday's mock disaster drill at Skyline High School.

"All of the agencies involved seemed to have known their responsibilities and everybody was set up to respond to that," said American Red Cross state disaster officer Henry Williams, who was on hand. "So, just in general observation, the set-up and the response was good."

Marti Viggiano, deputy emergency coordinator for Warren County Fire and Rescue, coordinated Monday's drill, which revolved around responding to the mock disaster of people in the northern part of the county who were displaced and without electricity due to the remnants of a hurricane that came up the East Coast.

Skyline High School was converted into a shelter to house the victims, played by 41 volunteers.

"It went very well," Viggiano said. "I'm very confident that if we had to open up a shelter in Warren County, we could handle that. Red Cross and Social Services did a very good job. They were here within 10 minutes after my initial phone call that we were gonna activate the shelter operation."

The Warren County Health Department and the Warren County Sheriff's Office also participated in the drill, which Viggiano said will be critiqued during a follow-up meeting.

Volunteers from other local jurisdictions served as evaluators, including Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Yew said, have prompted more of an emphasis on emergency preparedness drills.

"There's far more focus on that now than what I have ever witnessed before," Yew said. "They're also required by the Department of Homeland Security in a lot of cases. Most jurisdictions at least have to have one or two annually. But most jurisdictions have also taken it upon themselves, as Warren has done in this case, to do 'em on their own."

An added feature to Warren County's shelter plan is the inclusion of caring for the pets and livestock of displaced victims. Viggiano said that one of the lessons learned from Katrina, the hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, was that many people would not leave their animals behind.

"A lot of people died because they wanted to stay back with their pets," she said. "So we put a plan together."

Viggiano said victims can bring their pets to the emergency shelter and animal control officers will in turn take them to the Humane Society to be cared for until other arrangements can be made.

Larger animals also are in the plan, and can be taken to separate facilities, she added.

Warren County Fire and Rescue Chief Richard E. Mabie underscored the importance of providing care for animals as an integral part of the county's new shelter response plan.

"We have that built in the plans now, which is another change," Mabie said. "I think over the years, we've learned that people don't want to go anywhere without their animals. It's like family, and so we built that into the plans, how to take care of them. It makes it easier for people now to leave home or make that kind of decision. They don't need to stay home now to take care of their animals."

This was the first time that Skyline High School was used as a large-scale evacuation center, Mabie said. He said the school was designed to serve that purpose with its central location out of the floodplain and its back-up generators.

Beth Waller, chairwoman of the Warren County American Red Cross branch and vice chairwoman of the Top of Virginia American Red Cross chapter, also was pleased with Monday's outcome.

"From a Red Cross perspective, we are so grateful for the amount of volunteers that we had show up and for the community's support, for all the agencies that worked together to make the shelter happen and run successfully," she said. "I think it was a great practice drill and really shows that we have a wonderful community that's gonna step up and support each other in the event of a true disaster."

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