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Safety Patrol

Luckily, because of a luncheon scheduled nearby, the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross staff were among the first on the scene.

On Aug. 30, the remnants of Gaston dumped 14 inches of rain on Richmond in just a few hours. The next day, about 20 blocks of downtown were cordoned off and deemed uninhabitable. Businesses, many of which had little or no insurance, were ruined. Eight people died.

Shockoe Bottom was flooded by more than 10 feet of water. Cars and trucks floated away and were later found piled atop one another. City officials warned damage would easily amount to more than $15 million, and Gov. Mark Warner declared a state of emergency. Days after the rains had stopped, 61,000 people were without electricity, and 120 roads remained closed.

Just in time for the November elections came the booms. For more than a month, North Side residents worried about a series of loud and mysterious booms shaking their neighborhood. City officials held public meetings. Special investigators and emergency response teams were assembled and brought in. Eventually, they found "pressure-producing devices" and arrested two teenagers in connection with the incident.

Through incidents that raise our fears, we rely on certain people. It's their job to take the fears seriously, anticipate trouble — and help us deal with it.

"It really comes down to a message that creates a level of calm and reason in the face of crisis," says George W. Foresman, assistant to the governor in the state's Office of Commonwealth Preparedness.

In 2004, Foresman's office worked to build relationships among groups that respond to disaster. A kind of team emerged that includes local American Red Cross staff such as Paul D. Hundley, manager of disaster services; Bill Farrar, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works; and Benjamin Johnson, coordinator of emergency management for the city.

Johnson came to Virginia from Arizona. The Broad Street fire erupted on his 55th day here. Soon after, he was in Foresman's office. "The best thing is knowing you have additional resources," Johnson says of how local, state and national organizations connect. Perhaps the outgrowth of such efforts, emergency responders say, is that more people will have disaster plans in place.

Still, Foresman cautions, "You're never fully prepared, because risk is always a factor." An eternal optimist, he says the day could come when he asks people whether they have a consistent disaster plan and instead of getting shrugs, he gets the same answer: yes.

The Score continued ...

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