Emergency Management Has Come
a Long Way in 20 Years
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)
Fairfield, CT – Hurricane Irene, which barreled through Fairfield August 28, was the most recent weather emergency to strike the town. According to an analysis conducted by Fairfield officials and reported on by the Fire Department, increased planning, better tracking and information disbursement was much improved than nearly twenty years ago, when the last major memorable storm rattled the area.
“The beach can get very nasty,” said Fairfield Fire Chief Dick Felner, to mostly Beach Area residents gathered at Penfield Pavilion to attend an Emergency Management Informational Meeting Wednesday evening. “Back in ’93, we couldn’t even get equipment in. Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers made things better, but we’re still looking for your suggestions to make it even better. We welcome your comments – and you are welcome to some firehouse coffee.”
Felner’s comments prefaced Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid’s presentation on the town and state’s preparation, response, mitigation and recovery as related to Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm hours before local landfall.
With regard to preparation, Reid said officials heard about the storm at least a week in advance. “I’ve become a weather nut and track these events,” he admitted. “Five or six days before, it looked like a pretty classic East coast storm. We realized we needed to pay attention to it and started with discussions with the state and department heads, public works, health department and Board of Education. In fact, we discussed shelter plans early on with the latter. Fairfield Ludlowe is a prime shelter location. We also spoke to power companies, the Red Cross and C.E.R.T (Citizens Emergency Response Team).”
Reid reported that, at the height of the storm, the high school housed 85 people and 15 pets, and was second in the region for the amount of people sheltered. He also noted that community support was great, from businesses like the new ShopRite, which provided residents with ice. Communication, as well, was fluid. “Fire and police never worked so well,” he said, “and multiple notification systems, like Reverse 911, were used. We can geo code fairly easily. We used a web-based state EverBridge system, too.”
The deputy chief said that when the storm became imminent, volunteer firefighters went door to door in the Beach Area. “We wanted to cover as many bases as we could,” Reid said.
As to the response phase of the town’s emergency management process, Reid said, “By Thursday/Friday, it became obvious that the storm would hit us in some way and would rush right up the East coast, like the hurricane of 1938 and the one in the 50s, with catastrophic damage. We erred on the side of caution,” he said.
Reid explained that the department heads got together to discuss their specific roles, and multiple calls were made to the state. “My Blackberry was so active with calls,” Reid said, “that I couldn’t keep a charge for a full day. By Friday, we were discussing mandatory evacuation and opening shelters. A state of emergency was declared by the governor. We figured the storm was going to be along the magnitude of the ’92 storm. The margin between bad and catastrophic was very narrow. Our predictions were pretty close, a little less actually than expected, thankfully.”
The deputy chief commended the Medical Reserve Corps, which coordinated the shelter. “It was a complete success, and we kept it open for 48 hours,” he said. “We bought a lot of pizzas to feed everyone.”
Reid spoke to the mandatory evacuation order. “We don’t have complete authority to order people from their homes, but we wanted to impress upon them the urgency of the storm. Some people stayed and were fine, but if the wind had been 10 to 15 miles stronger, we could have been looking at a very different situation. Though it was a tropical storm by the time it got here, it stlll did quite a bit of damage.”
Reid detailed that the eye of the storm hit at 26 m.p.h., after Long Island slowed it down. “We only had 3.5” of rain and it moved through in two hours,” he said. “The wind was the worst foe – blocking over 300 roads with trees and bringing down 300 wires. UI went out, assessed the damage and cut wires to start, to let Public Works cut trees. After they made things safe, UI identified major areas with outages, senior housing units and medical centers without power.”
The stumbling block, Reid said, is that , “UI didn’t communicate well what it was doing, so it seemed like they weren’t doing anything. They were operating on a different sheet of music. They gave us a representative that didn’t have any authority.”
Once the storm was over, the mitigation and recovery phases kicked in. “Emergency workers were burned out and there was a great demand for ice with people losing stuff in their refrigerators,” he said. “We depended on state and Red Cross support that, frankly, we didn’t get. But local business stepped up.”
Going forward, Reid said, “We need to work out better sharing numbers people need to call, and what numbers to reach people at. The public messages from the First Selectman were received well, though some thought they were annoying. Finally, there were a lot of extra equipment and personnel costs, which FEMA will be helping on. FEMA may also help pay for homeowners’ structural damage.”