Extension specialists shine in disaster response role

Keith Tidball
R.J. Anderson/Cornell Cooperative Extension
New York Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Director Keith Tidball, a senior extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Department of Natural Resources, surveys drought damage to a Finger Lakes corn field.

In an exercise based on fallout from past weather disturbances, strong and sustained autumn rains cause the Mohawk River to flood its banks rapidly, compromising the safety of people, homes and businesses in at least three New York counties. Among those in immediate danger is a Lewis County Amish farmer who became stranded while trying to save livestock from rushing floodwater.

With no cell phone, he is unable to call 911. However, word of his predicament soon reaches one of the county’s Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) specialists, who immediately springs into action tapping into a comprehensive disaster response network.

This was one of a number of hypothetical scenarios injected into a recent statewide disaster response simulation administered by New York State’s Office of Emergency Management, which gathered officials from New York state agencies including the State Police, and the Departments of Transportation, Human Services, and Agriculture and Markets (NYSDAM). Monitoring the exercise was the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Making the disaster scenario even more authentic, updates from the two-hour exercise were sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office every half hour.

As part of the simulation, the CCE specialist, who works closely with Lewis County farmers, immediately logged onto the Ag Sentinel dashboard, an online disaster response tool administered by the New York Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), a CCE program partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Manned by New York EDEN Director Keith Tidball, senior extension associate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ (CALS) Department of Natural Resources, the Ag Sentinel is tied into the statewide emergency response network, and its dashboard is displayed on a computer screen in the state emergency operations center in Albany. Based on the CCE specialist’s dispatch, the Ag Sentinel alerted the state’s Disaster All-Hazards Response Team and NYSDAM partners who assisted in directing first responders to the scene.

For Tidball, the exercise illustrated one of the many roles Cornell and CCE play in disaster response and relief. “As a state program with satellite offices in every county, CCE has a vast communication network and is ideally positioned to provide boots-on-the-ground support and eyes-on-the-scene intelligence to state- and county-led disaster efforts,” Tidball says. “And because we are part of Cornell University, New York’s land-grant university, we are able to provide evidence-based resources that can be valuable components in the recovery and rebuilding phases.”

In most cases, Tidball says CCE’s role in disaster response centers on issues affecting natural resources, agriculture and livestock. And its impact is not only confined to acute situations like hurricanes and floods. Relying in part on data reported by Tidball and CCE county associations through the Ag Sentinel, 25 New York counties were recently designated by Cuomo as natural disaster areas due to this summer’s drought, making farmers in those areas eligible for assistance, including emergency loans, from the USDA Farm Service Agency.

“When dealing with these types of incidents, we’re acting as a conduit between our agriculture growers and producers and the various state agencies addressing the situation,” Tidball says. “It starts with every agency putting out information in a broad format, then we pare that down and deliver essential details to our farmers, and all the other players in our communities.

“Our people also reach out to farmers and ag producers and share what they learn through the Ag Sentinel,” Tidball adds. “I’m then able to monitor the broadcast net centrally from campus or from Albany and work with state agencies and our associations to determine if an expert needs to be contacted, and who that should be.”

CALS Associate Dean Chris Watkins, who is director of CCE, says his organization is uniquely positioned to play a major role in disaster management because of its access to important research-based resources and in close partnerships with key New York state agencies.

“Disasters of any type – including the recent drought gripping much of the state – can have serious consequences on New Yorkers, their families and the communities in which they live,” says Watkins. “The impacts can be very personal as well as directly affecting the economic well-being of farms and other businesses. Not only are we suited to help, we are obligated to do so.”

R.J. Anderson is a writer and communications specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at rj.anderson@cornell.edu.

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