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Crittenden chief steps up to handle disaster

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By Jamie Baker-Nantz

Lee Burton handles yet another phone call.

He’s calm, polite and efficient.

He makes notes on a yellow legal pad. He’s being asked to coordinate a shot clinic.

His office door opens and another note is shoved at him.

He picks up a large mug of coffee and takes a sip, as he looks around his small office inside the Crittenden Fire House.

It’s been a long two days, but the dark shadows under his eyes are the only signs he’s not slept since a tornado ripped through his town.

On March 2, he was working on paperwork inside this same office that has since become a hub of activity for the coordination of volunteers and relief efforts at the Harvesters Subdivision.

A severe weather alert caught his attention. When he saw confirmation that a tornado had touched down in Carrollton, he went outside to check the sky.

He decided to call his volunteers to the station – just in case.

Four volunteer firefighters answered the call.

Burton directed them to stage the trucks around the city.

“I told them to roll the trucks because I didn’t want the trucks and firefighters to be in one place in case it hit here,” Burton, Crittenden’s fire chief, said.

As he prepared to leave the station, he said the “world went gray and the wind was ridiculous.”

Within two minutes, Burton sent firefighters to Harvesters where they began a house-to-house search. They found some homes barely scathed, while others were in shambles.

“The debris was still flying when we got there,” he said.

His fear was that with that much debris and damage, there’d be death.

As a firefighter/paramedic for, Burton is trained to handle emergency situations, but this was the first time he was the incident commander.

He didn’t realize at the time that this would be the largest of his career so far.

He’s quick to credit the firefighters from Crittenden and surrounding areas for their timely response and offer of help, as well as the cooperation of Grant County Emergency Management, the Kentucky State Police and other emergency agencies in Grant County for a smooth operation.

Within a short time, the Grant County EMA mobile command center was set up at the Shell Station on Violet Road.

From there, Burton coordinated the response with the help of Rick Willoby, Grant County’s Emergency Management Director.

“Initially, we needed to care for any medical needs, evacuate those who needed to be and identify any fire threats,” he said.

A small army of volunteers began checking each residence three times.

Rural Metro Ambulance sent additional ambulances to the area to assist with medical transports.

An emergency shelter was opened at Grant County High School and three school busses were utilized to transport victims.

The KSP also set up a mobile command post at Shell and called in units from the National Guard to patrol the subdivision to deter looting.

Early Saturday morning, Burton was in the Harvesters surveying the damage.

“Our main priority was to clear the roadways,” he said. “They had to be cleaned so that more help could get in.”

That’s when more volunteers were needed.

Firefighters from Dry Ridge, Williamstown, Corinth, Jonesville, Florence, Stamping Ground, Ludlow, Verona, Union, Walton, Cynthiana, New Liberty, Ryland and Wilder volunteered. They were sent to the Crittenden Fire House where they were organized into teams of four, paired with a Crittenden firefighter and then used as needed.

“It just made sense to use the fire house for logisitics and as a collection point,” Burton said.

Traffic into the Harvesters was restricted to police, volunteers, media, insurance representatives and residents, but Burton said it didn’t stop some contractors from attempting to drum up business.

“Some residents had already contacted their insurance companies, which had contacted contractors, but for every one legitimate contractor who had been called to the Harvesters there were seven who were vulturing on people who were still trying to figure out what to do,” Burton said.

When contractors glutted the road and made it nearly impossible for other vehicles to get through, contractors were then told to register at the fire house.

Volunteers from the Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief Team, which includes members from Grant County, rolled into town with additional manpower and resources.

As life in the Harvesters began to return to normal, the emergency command center was relocated to Waller Drive and then closed at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 4 as most of the debris had been removed.

He was quick to give credit to everyone who came out and supported the community’s efforts.

“The real story here is that everyone came out for everyone else,” Burton said.

Burton said he slept maybe a couple of hours Friday through Sunday, but on Sunday night, he slept soundly.

“But by the Grace of God, we escaped a potential disaster that could have cost hundreds of lives,” he said. “The community and neighboring communities came out and just turned it into, well I don’t even know what to call it, but anyone who says that no one cares about anyone any more you should have been here this weekend and it would have changed your mind.”