By Tom Larson
When a community is hit with an emergency situation, be it a tornado or a hazardous chemical spill, residents for years have turned on their radios for information.
But what if there's no way for the radio station to bring people information and updates?
That was the situation Monday night and early Tuesday morning, after an anhydrous ammonia leak forced the evacuation of about 250 people from areas -- including the radio station -- near the spill north of Morris along Highway 9.
And that's why Stevens County residents are encouraged to sign up to receive emergency Instant Alerts from the county via home phone, cell phone and email, said Morris Chief of Police Jim Beauregard.
"That threw a monkey wrench into it," Beauregard said. "That's why it's important for people to sign up for the Instant Alerts."
The public can sign up for the alerts at the Web site http://www.envoyprofiles.com/STEVENSCOUNTY/, or by stopping at the Sheriff's Office and police station on Atlantic Avenue.
In the event of an emergency, the county's system sends out information and updates to phones or by email.
The spill occurred at about 9:55 p.m. Monday night, and a plume of anhydrous ammonia gas hung in the air near the spill and traveled slowly along Highway 28. It did not dissipate quickly because of a lack of wind.
The KMRS/KKOK radio station, which is located along Highway 28, had to be evacuated, and efforts to direct listeners to the University of Minnesota, Morris station, KUMM, and a station in Benson for updates on the spill failed because no on-air personnel were available at those stations, Beauregard said.
Law enforcement had to go door-to-door to alert residents affected by the plume, he said.
"Communication is always an issue in all these situations," Beauregard said. "For years, when something happens, we've been trained to go to the radio. When that fails, we go to back-up systems, but we have limited resources. You can't knock on every single door."
The residents evacuated were taken to shelter at the Regional Fitness Center, the area was closed off and traffic diverted. At about 1 a.m., people were allowed to return to their residences, and air quality was monitored in the area until 3 a.m. There were no reports of injuries from the spill or gas plume, Beauregard said.
Emergency management and law enforcement are working with the Instant Alert company to better pinpoint the alerts to affected residents, but the public should sign up regardless, Beauregard said.
"We're trying to fine tune it," he said, "but this was a better-safe-than-sorry situation, and I'd want to get that phone call."
The public "did a great job" during the evacuation and were patient with law enforcement and emergency personnel throughout the ordeal, Beauregard said, but having more people receiving the Instant Alerts is critical.
"It could have been a lot worse," he said.