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Model cuts storm down to size

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


TAMPA -- Don Abbott surveys the appalling devastation spread out before him and smiles the smile of a happy man.

At his side, wife Bev is no less pleased.

Abbottville, a happy community of 56,000 just a few minutes ago, has exploded in catastrophe. A hurricane has leveled buildings and draped sparking power lines everywhere. Natural gas is leaking from a broken tank, and fire erupts from a nearby building.

Vehicles and their occupants have been tossed around like toys -- no surprise, really, since they are toys.

But this isn't playtime. The mood in Room 5 at the Tampa Convention Center is serious -- for the most part, anyway. The tension is real.

The Abbotts have brought their 24-by-6-foot tabletop city, Abbottville, to the Governor's Hurricane Conference to help prepare emergency managers for the decisionmaking pressure cooker they will live in if disaster strikes their communities.

Under the direction of the Abbotts, the model city's problems pile up rapidly and unexpectedly. Mausoleums are broken open. Dangerous liquids spill. Injuries abound. Chaos reigns with taped sound effects -- chain saws, an approaching train.

"We make it difficult to talk," says Don Abbott, "but they (seminar participants) still must work together. These are all situations they might have to deal with."

Emergency managers learn to communicate quickly with other agencies, and to anticipate problems. The Abbotts coordinate the chaos, and even play roles, sometimes picking up props and donning a hat or wig. One might become an angry homeowner or an animal rights activist, the other a pesky member of the media, sticking a microphone under someone's nose and demanding an interview.

"I have a lot of hats," says Don Abbott. "I often play an elected official who wants all his stuff done first.

"We try to make them deal with hard things, things they maybe haven't dealt with so well in the past."

The Abbotts developed their tabletop city more than 10 years ago, and call their program CERT, or Command Emergency Response Training. They are hired by groups and conventions, such as the hurricane conference, to put on seminars. Don Abbott is a retired division chief of the Warren Township Fire Department in Indianapolis. He and Bev will be on the road 42 weeks this year, he said.

They say they enjoy their work. "It's good to have a little fun while you learn," Bev Abbott says.

The program appears popular.

"The key to doing a good job in an emergency is practice, but it's hard to practice an emergency," said Michele Baker, director of the Pasco County Office of Emergency Management.

Abbottville, she said, "provides a strong sense of realism. I've seen people break out in a sweat from the stress of making a decision. I love the program."

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