'Weather Jeopardy' at the Mat-Su Emergency Preparedness Expo

Jeremiah and Trinity Forro play 'Weather Jeopardy' with meteorologist Louise Fode during the 2016 Mat-Su Emergency Preparedness Expo at the Menard Center.

WASILLA — If attendance numbers from the Mat-Su Emergency Preparedness Expo are any indication, borough residents should be more prepared than ever when disaster strikes.

With 45 minutes left of the 4-hour event, Mat-Su Borough Emergency Management Specialist Heather Ridge said she had counted about 800 people at the Menard Sports Center for the expo on Saturday.

“It’s been fantastic,” she said. “Last year and before we’d always been at the college, because it was free, but we outgrew the college … and we have lots of room to grow (even more).”

The expo started about 10 years ago with former Frontiersman reporter Debra McGhan — now executive director of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center — and Bea Adler with the Mat-Su Borough’s Local Emergency Planning Committee. McGhan said their desire to prepare Mat-Su residents for the worst was fueled by both personal and professional experiences.

McGhan is one of a select few Alaskans who remembers well the 1964 earthquake and tsunami that made national news. And though she survived that, she lost her house to a fire a week later. Decades later, she would also lose her husband in an industrial accident.

“All of a sudden I was a single mom with two little kids,” McGhan said.

Still, McGhan considered herself more prepared than most at the time. One mother she later encountered reasoned that she “didn’t need to know how to cut wood” because her husband could do it.

“That kind of thing kind of makes me cringe inside because there is a personal responsibility that each of us has to be prepared,” McGhan said.

Her daughter had to learn that kind of responsibility, too, she said, when she was about 15. Their car had sustained a flat tire, and McGhan’s daughter suggested they “flag a man down” to help them.

“And I said, ‘no, we don’t need to flag a man down, we need to learn how to change a tire,’” McGhan said. “It’s great to have a partner (who knows what they’re doing), but if you don’t, you’re handicapped if you don’t know how to do it yourself.”

At the expo, attendees had the opportunity to consult 45 preparedness and safety vendors, as well as participate in simulated emergencies in the “Disaster Experience Rooms” and other interactive exhibits. Information on natural or manmade disasters — from floods and fires to car accidents, avalanches and active volcanoes — was also made available in various forms.

Cub Scout Landon Kirton, 8, said he was particularly interested to learn that fire extinguishers don’t always make the fire “go right out” like they do “in the movies.”

Landon’s mother, Michelle Kirton, said the expo was a perfect opportunity, not only to check off her son’s Cub Scout requirements, but for all parents to let their children experience potentially frightening situations in a safe environment.

“This is great because we don’t have any formal training for this kind of stuff for little kids out here,” she said.

While, as McGhan said, games and puzzles work best for engaging young children, peer-to-peer advocacy might be more effective for teens and young adults.

Colony High School and Northern Arizona University graduate Teagen Tanner, for example, advocated for ATV and bicycle safety as a representative for Helmet on Heads — an initiative she started in 2015 after sustaining a major head injury in a rollover that summer.

On a Go Fund Me page for the organization, Tanner writes that she “was in a very horrible ATV accident, just going 30 ft at a very low speed,” and almost lost her life. A long scar runs down the side of her face as a reminder of the wreck, and how easily it could’ve been avoided.

“All of my injuries could have been avoided had I been wearing a helmet,” she writes.

With Helmets on Heads, Tanner and her associates have been able to give away 165 ATV and bicycle helmets, she said, to those in need. She gives safety presentations in schools and is currently on a fundraising tour outside of Alaska.

“No matter the speed or (the rider’s) experience, everybody’s gonna wreck at some point, and we wanna help keep people safe,” Tanner said at the expo.

Helmets on Heads was at the expo last year as well, and McGhan said she hopes to see all vendors and families return in the future to maintain a consistently prepared community.

“This is not a one-time event — emergency preparedness is something you need to do over and over,” she said.

Wasilla resident Mike Forro, who arrived near the end of the event with his four children, said they would definitely be coming back next year.

“You have to make sure you’re ready because you never know what’s gonna happen, especially in Alaska,” he said.

Contact reporter Caitlin Skvorc at 352-2266 or caitlin.skvorc@frontiersman.com.

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