As state and Sussex County emergency management officials listened to a recent presentation concerning fallout from Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast, they breathed a sigh of relief.
“If the storm had made landfall just 50 miles to the south, we would have been the ones giving the presentation and talking about the long-term recovery efforts,” says Sussex Emergency Operations Director Joe Thomas.
Delaware has been fortunate: No hurricane in recorded history has made landfall here. Some, including Irene in 2011 and Sandy last October, have brushed the coast to provide a snapshot of what damage the storms can do.
Thomas said years of training and planning have put Sussex County in a strong position if a major storm should make landfall. But, he also said, that doesn't mean officials and residents would not face obstacles and challenges.
“We've not had a long-term recovery beyond a couple of days like New Jersey is going through,” Thomas said. At the top of the list of challenges would be restoring electricity and providing housing for displaced residents, Thomas said.
The veteran emergency planner said no one can afford to get complacent. “It's not a matter if a storm will hit, but a matter of when; we have to think that way,” Thomas said. “We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Thomas said he had significant scares over the past two years with dire predictions concerning Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. “With Irene, I was really concerned that this was going to be the one that would make us or break us,” he said. “Then with Sandy, I was thinking it was Irene all over again. We have been very, very fortunate.”
Most people are not aware of the planning and continuous training that emergency officials do to prepare for major storms. Late last month, the Delmarva Emergency Task Force hosted a table-top exercise near Georgetown to review readiness and reaction plans.
Keeping an eye to the sky
During hurricane season, emergency planners are more attuned to weather forecasts than most people. If a tropical storm or hurricane is in the forecast and models show it will travel up the East Coast, emergency officials are on high alert.
A timeline for putting an emergency action plan in place is based on the track and intensity of a storm. The initial stages of the plan are put into place when National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center officials contact Delaware Emergency Management Agency officials about the possibility of a major storm.
If models show a hit in the Mid-Atlantic region, conference calls begin to take place between DEMA, county emergency management officials, state agencies and the governor's office. Thomas said preparing for evacuation and shelters are the first priorities.
If landfall is in the forecast, emergency management personnel recommend what areas should be evacuated to the governor's office; flooding is always a key factor, Thomas said. Gov. Jack Markell is the only one in the state who can order an evacuation.
“Life safety issues must be addressed, and important information such as evacuation orders have to be communicated to the public,” said Gary Laing, DEMA community relations officer. “Flooding is certainly one of the major impacts that could occur during a hurricane. The greatest danger is from water.”
“The idea is to get people out of harm's way prior to tropical force sustained winds of 35 mph. People should be off the roads,” Thomas said.
Timing is critical because bridges providing key routes out of Delaware have wind restrictions and would close many hours prior to a storm's landfall.
DelDOT oversees evacuation along specified, marked routes. In some cases, with a storm coming up from the south, all southbound traffic would be prohibited so people could use all lanes to evacuate.
Thomas said many people do not adhere to evacuation orders. “People who have lived in Sussex County for years are resilient,” he said, adding many people have become complacent because past warnings of direct hits have not come to fruition.
Thomas said predicting storms is not an exact science. “The last two events have not been as bad as predicted, and people now tend to think it's not going to be that bad; that's a big concern to me. It's a false sense of security,” he said.
Providing shelter from the storm
Locations for shelters are selected based on the predicted path of a storm. In preparation for Hurricane Sandy, shelters were opened in Cape Henlopen, Indian River and Milford high schools, all with generators, to serve the coastal area. Additional shelters at Sussex Central and Sussex Tech high schools were put on standby, Thomas said.
Shelters are approved by the Red Cross, the agency that staffs and provides supplies. Some shelters are designated as general shelters, others as medical shelters and still others as pet-friendly. Laing said the Department of Agriculture is responsible for sheltering animals while the Division of Public Health addresses medical needs.
The Delaware Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster may also assist in meeting needs of shelters and can provide food, Laing said. School district shelters that dispense food are compensated.
“This would all be coordinated ahead of time; all of the pieces would be in place,” Thomas said.
Laing said lists of shelters are not issued ahead of time. “This is to assure that the public is directed to a safe location closest to the area impacted and to eliminate travel to an area that may not be safe,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sussex County EOC would be in constant contact with DEMA, the agency charged with coordinating state efforts in conjunction with a host of state, local and federal agencies, including the Delaware National Guard.
Laing said responses across the state would have to be flexible because the impact of wind and water changes as a storm moves through.
Communication is key to planning process
Communication is always a key component of any emergency plan. A statewide communications system is in place for state agencies, police, fire departments and emergency officials. Thomas said amateur radio operators would play a key role during a storm, especially if communications were interrupted. During Sandy and Irene, amateur radio operators were in place in shelters and area fire departments.
Thomas said cell towers are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds, but antennas can be blown off and satellite dishes can be turned. “There could be coverage area issues,” he said.
Communicating with the public can be difficult during power outages. Plans are in place to send out information via the media, cell phones and social media, but if electricity is out, communication with residents could be limited. Residents should take steps to ensure they have battery-operated radios and alternate ways to charge their cell phones so communication lines remain open, Thomas said.
During and after a storm
Once a storm hits the area, emergency officials hunker down, maintain contact with other officials and power companies until the storm passes. “Sussex EOC is the point of command and control; we have all the major players in one room,” Thomas said.
Staff are on standby waiting to get into action as soon as a storm ends. “In hurricane force winds, we will not send people out because of the dangers of flying debris,” he said.
After a storm passes, emergency officials are among the first to get out to assess the damage. Some areas may be closed off to residents – like they were after Sandy – until after emergency officials determine an area is safe from downed wires, gas leaks, road damage, flooding and debris. State police and National Guard assist to provide checkpoints. “We want people to be able to get home as soon as possible,” Thomas said.
Getting power restored is the main priority because during a hurricane tens of thousands of residents would be out of electricity. Thomas said DelDOT crews would be available to help clear roadways of debris to aid power crews.
Residents play a part in the plan
Emergency officials are quick to point out that residents also play a key role in the planning process. Thomas said residents, especially those who live in flood-prone areas and along the coast, should know evacuation routes. Plans should be made in advance of possible optional destinations.
He advises all families to have an evacuation plan in place:
• Create a storm kit – go to sussexcountyde.gov/services/storm to see what should be in the kit, including important papers. Bookmark this page.
• Turn off all utilities.
• Lock all doors and windows.
• Notify a family member or friend outside the evacuation area of your destination.
“All it takes is one storm to cause untold damage and ruin lives,” Thomas said. “It's better to be prepared than to not be ready and find yourself in a life-and-death situation.”