A wave of winter storms that started with a vengeance the weekend of December 21 and hasn't quit its ups and downs in three weeks is still presenting challenges for emergency management personnel. However, compared to the Ice Storm of '98, it's a whole different sleigh ride. For emergency management leaders of Washington County, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik and Charlotte County in New Brunswick, lessons have been learned in the 15 years that have passed, but communications are still the most difficult challenge still being worked on today.
Washington County Emergency Management Director Mike Hinerman says that, while the 1998 ice storm did far more damage to major power grid infrastructure, the 2013B2014 series of winter storms is drawing things out. "It's like a slow‑motion train wreck," he comments. While most Mainers who experienced the 1998 storm had their power back in five to seven days, and just about everyone by day 12, there are plenty of Washington County residents during the recent spate of storms who had their power restored only to have it go back out again with the next storm to roll in. Despite that, Hinerman says that the county as a whole was in much better shape overall, "and that's because of lessons learned in '98."
There are two areas to emergency management, Hinerman explains: preparedness and equipment. This time around more places and homeowners had generators in place, and electric utility companies were faster in bringing in extra help. "Overall they got the system up very quickly," says Hinerman. Communications systems now have multiple ways for emergency management personnel to reach each other. Municipal readiness varied from town to town. Citing one, he says, "Charlotte did a great job in opening the fire station to the town and communicating with people." In Calais the Washington County Community College had a shelter prepared, and in Machias Hinerman says that the regional shelter was ready if needed.
Passamaquoddy Tribal Councillor Newell Lewey reports that the tribe is learning as it goes. "Even today, this afternoon, we had a discussion about communications." Cell phones, e-mail and texting are not reliable during such storms, he notes. "We have to be able to communicate directly to the people on the ground." That's the essential lesson learned since 1998 and still being worked on. The tribe has come a long way, he says. It now files its own paperwork with the Department of the Interior and has volunteers on the ground to help. It has just acquired 200 cots with sleeping bags and other bedding, four large generators and 15 additional small generators. "We're starting to build that stuff up. We're also looking to acquire a haul‑behind trailer to transport cots" and other supplies in the event that a remote emergency site needs to be organized. "We're trying to grasp who needs assistance."
There are still plenty of barriers to emergency management that come down to individual situations. The elderly, those who are sick with medical equipment at home, those who have no vehicle or scarce financial resources and/or live in substandard housing all face challenges to preparing successfully for power outages. "FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] says that all disasters are personal, and it's true," Hinerman comments. Lewey says that the round of recent storms has been an eye‑opener in showing "how vulnerable we are."
The Washington County Emergency Management Agency is gathering damage assessments from municipalities for FEMA reporting purposes. Hinerman urges those towns that have not yet sent him a report to contact his office at 255‑3931.
Regional coordinators use hands‑on approach
In Charlotte County, Regional Coordinator Jason Cooling of New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization (EMO) says that the Ice Storm of '98 has led to a more hands‑on approach to regional assistance by the provincial government. "For us, we base emergency management on the individual, then the municipality and then the region." That's where Cooling comes in. "We're helping municipalities advance emergency management." While the recent series of storms was particularly challenging because people in municipal positions were sometimes away for the holidays, he says that working with local fire departments proved very successful. Through those departments the EMO was able to distribute heaters, donated fuels, water and other needed items.
Communications during such times still remains a challenge, Cooling says. "The hurdles this time around were because of infrastructure that collapsed," resulting in knocked out systems. The EMO has been working on the problem, but Cooling notes that it's a long‑term process to build systems that will work during such times. Since 1998 the province has recognized the importance of utilizing emergency broadcasting systems available through radio stations and other such strategies to reach the public. "We have to make sure that we keep people out of harm's way."
Rick Doucet, MLA for Charlotte-The Isles, was not impressed with the EMO response to the recent storms. In a prepared statement he said, "There was no plan to coordinate support for people affected, no communication from EMO to advise people of needed services they might obtain, no coordination of support to provide help to allow the NB Power crews to get at trouble spots more quickly; nothing for days from EMO."
New Brunswick EMO Communications Officer Paul Bradley responds that because of lessons learned from 1998, "ice storms are now factored into emergency plans at local and municipal levels, and the designation of warming centres and shelters is now a priority in New Brunswick communities."
Cooling notes, "There are a lot of folks out there confused about EMO" and what it does. He says that the organization is not like the U.S. FEMA that uses federal dollars and resources. "We use assets and abilities of the province" to meet emergency management needs.
Because of the 1998 storm, Bradley explains that EMO and its partners have focused on preparedness, including the implementation of regional coordinators, such as Cooling. "When an event occurs these regional coordinators assist municipalities to coordinate the response and the resources, and depending on the type, severity and duration of the event, they may activate a Regional Emergency Operations Centre. They also provide valuable, on‑the‑ground advice to the Provincial Operations Centre, with which they are in constant communications."
In addition, Bradley says, "Utilities place an increasing emphasis on tree‑trimming around power lines. Tree‑trimming is now an ongoing, annual program for utility companies."