CHARLESTON – Serving 21 years as an intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps taught me one thing; always be prepared for the worst. 

With the recent natural disasters that have hit our country, this philosophy is more relevant than ever. That is why it was encouraging to see the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Disaster Recovery Reform Act (DRRA) that will reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

Leonhardt

The legislation calls for placing a greater emphasis on pre-disaster planning and mitigation. Our state Legislature is doing its part by establishing the Joint Committee on Flooding to review and update emergency response efforts. The efforts by our state and federal legislative bodies must be duplicated within our state agencies. 

It is time our state government ensures it is ready to respond when the people of West Virginia need it the most.

Emergency response is not new to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA), but in the last year, we have elevated it as a top priority. For years, the department has worked with federal partners to control and manage potential disease outbreaks. 

Avian Influenza and similar diseases require origination source tracing which the WVDA is charged with handling. Disease traceability helps protect human and animal lives by responding and isolating areas of origin quickly, mitigating the potential loss of life. 

In the event of a natural disaster, the WVDA is also designated as a point of contact for emergency support. Under this agreement, the department is charged with providing rescue and shelter for livestock and companion animals during emergencies.

Despite long outstanding agreements, our efforts for threat preparedness have only been touched at the surface level. The WVDA has essential resources that can and should be deployed when needed by the people of West Virginia. 

For example, our Donated Foods Distribution Center, located in Ripley, receives and delivers 300,000 cases of food annually, serving all 55 counties in West Virginia. The Cedar Lakes Conference Center has the capacity to accommodate 500 to 700 people for lodging and dining. 

Our state farms can house more than 1,000 head of cattle at any point in time, providing an essential food source when supplies run low.

The WVDA staff are another vital resource for threat preparedness. In the past year, our staff has been working to develop short-term and long-term strategic plans for emergency preparedness. They have cultivated partnerships with the United States Department of Homeland Security, the West Virginia Department of Corrections and West Virginia University. 

The goal of these efforts is to collaboratively develop an integrated response to animal health and disease outbreak incidents. When staff know how to quickly implement strategic plans and utilize resources, we can hit the ground running when called upon.

The government cannot prevent natural disasters. However, we can develop sound, strategic plans to mitigate the damage. 

Through partnerships and training exercises, organizations and their staff can understand roles and the resources needed to accomplish their responsibilities. Agencies working together will create a successful response to helping the most vulnerable during emergencies. 

At the end of the day, we must be ready. Lives, property and the citizens of West Virginia put their faith in us to respond when duty calls. We cannot let them down.

Leonhardt is West Virginia's Commissioner of Agriculture.

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