A nine-member team has returned to Missoula after about two weeks on the ground in the Florida Panhandle, where the third-strongest hurricane ever to hit the United States ravaged the landscape and claimed at least 60 lives.
The operations, safety plans and lessons learned from such a task will go into planning models for Montana's future disasters; not a hurricane, but the collateral damage that comes along with large-scale catastrophes.
When Ken Parks, deputy director of Missoula County Office of Emergency Management, and eight others from the Missoula Incident Management team touched down in Tallahasse in mid-October, days after the storm had passed, there was no power, and things were bleak; they were told to bring enough supplies to be self-sufficient for 48 hours.
The team was soon based in Liberty County. Libraries, grade schools and arenas set up as shelters would be their home for two weeks. As far as the Missoula team had traveled, some parts of the landscape felt familiar — particularly the forested areas and isolated rural populations of the county. But no one on the Missoula team had worked a hurricane before, which presented new, unfamiliar challenges.
Wildfire response happens as the disaster is underway, while hurricane efforts follow after the storm has passed.
"Everything, the whole forest, was just mowed over," Parks said.
"It was like someone took a weed-eater to it," said Chad Kidd, one of the Missoula city firefighters who took an operations role on the trip. "All these trees were jacked up and hanging from the power lines, so there's fall hazards everywhere."
"There was no communication at all," said Troy Ault, another Missoula Fire Department firefighter also in the operations section in the Florida effort. "Radio communication was pretty much nonexistent."
In the days after arrival, the team would observe and learn how and where they were needed, much like waiting for the rhythm to click before leaping into the double-Dutch jump ropes.
"We've all cut our teeth in fire," Parks said. "Fire has a very well-established [incident command] system, chain of command. In All-Hazard, it's a totally different realm where you have to be ready to jump in and do whatever possible."
The Missoula team quickly got to work on a public information movement, to make sure local residents knew where they could access different support and recovery programs. As incident commander on the team, Parks became the liaison between the locals, the county, state and Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Members of the Missoula team beat the streets, spoke at churches and posted flyers anywhere people gathered. Eventually, that turned into gathering data, creating a real-time tracking system to best distribute supplies and other actions that helped glue the multi-pronged response together in a unified push toward full recovery.
Traveling amidst the wreckage, "we felt like a pack of stray dogs," Kidd said with a laugh.
The goal was to get people back to self-sufficiency. But they hit another problem as food started coming back to the stores: Banks were still offline, so people couldn't use their debit or credit cards.
"Once people ran out of cash they didn't have anything to barter with," Parks said. "It's back to the old style of taking credit and working as a community. There was really no other way."
That kind of putting-politics-aside help came from all angles, Kidd said. People would cut the trees out of others' driveways before clearing their own, and locals were key in identifying where responders should prioritize the immediate efforts.
"It's a small community," Kidd said of Liberty County. "They know where the little old ladies are who are on respirators."
As teams spread out with cleanup efforts, the death toll continued ticking. More than 10 days after the storm, a man was found crushed by a tree he had tried to cut down from his roof. One lineman died working on power lines when someone hooked the generator up to their home.
While Montana is not likely to suffer the wrath of a hurricane, this kind of collateral damage following a storm like Michael produced lessons the Missoula team can bring back to the state and use to update their current disaster plans. Since the team returned last week, Parks has already conducted a presentation to state emergency officials in Helena.
"We learned a lot about what a major disaster looked like," Parks said. "If we're out of power for two weeks, grocery stores are empty, freezers are rotting, what do we need to do for a population like that?"