Commentary: Cold, hard lessons from Kentucky ice storms

This editorial appeared in The Lexington Herald-Leader.

The icy disaster that shellacked Kentucky is far from over in a broad stretch of the state, stretching from the Mississippi River to Elizabethtown, where almost all power and communications were knocked out.

While the top priority must be getting food, water, medicine and shelter to those still in need, it's not too early to start learning from mistakes and planning for the next Big One.

Two gaps in emergency preparations stand out:

Communications. Law-enforcement agencies in some areas were unable to communicate internally or alert state officials to the desperate situations in their communities because the heavy ice had disabled towers and antennas. What they needed, but did not have, were satellite phones that operate independent of land-based towers.

Backup power. Many water districts lacked backup electrical generators, compounding the emergency when hundreds of thousands of people who were stranded in the cold and dark lost water as well. Once emergency generators were trucked in and service resumed, the water was not fit to drink without boiling. Designated shelters also lacked backup generators, heat and lights.

This natural disaster, probably the worst in Kentucky's history, was also the first big test of the post-9/11 emergency response system. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the federal government has pumped tens of millions of Homeland Security dollars into states to improve emergency communications and preparedness.

How well did the system work in Kentucky? Was the lack of satellite phones and back-up generators a sign of poor planning that will show up elsewhere?

To read the complete editorial, visit The Lexington Herald-Leader.