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Environmental Emergencies: A Panel of Regional Leaders Discuss Emergency Preparedness Measures and How States React in the Face of Mother Nature’s Fury

May 26, 2014 08:01 PM

 

The WTS-Boston April Luncheon, held on April 17, informed attendees about the damage that Hurricane Irene and Super Storm Sandy wreaked on Massachusetts and neighboring states, including Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Mary Jane O’Meara, Associate Vice President at HNTB and a senior transportation leader with more than 25 years in the industry, moderated the discussion as the panelists shared insight related to severe weather management, including lessons learned from past events and strategies to handle severe storm events before, during and after they hit.

Susan Minter, Deputy Secretary of Vermont Agency of Transportation opened the panel discussion. Susan is responsible for overseeing the implementation of state and federal regulation for VDOT and formerly served in the Vermont legislature for 6 years. During her discussion, Susan highlighted that at the time of the luncheon Vermont was responding to their 97th winter event of the season, which ironically includes response to both snow and flooding. In 2011, Hurricane Irene's wrath on the state of Vermont resulted in 8" of rainfall in just 24 hours, 3,500 total homes damaged and 500 miles of road damage on the state system alone. During the storm, Vermont implemented a number of strategies using institutional knowledge, including rapidly deploying operational centers, creating safe detours and executing key internal and external communication systems. With the help of Google, Inc., roads open for travel were communicated to the public in real time. Using "Failure Is Not an Option" as motivation, and partnerships with neighboring states and the National Guard, Vermont succeeded in their battle with Hurricane Irene. They continue to build state resiliency to storms through vulnerability identification, stronger structures and staff training.

The panel transitioned to Rhode Island's response to Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, with Robert Smith, Deputy Chief Engineer, speaking on behalf of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. The State of Rhode Island did not wait until the storm reached their coast to take action. Instead, RIDOT initiated their response actions as the storm formed in the Bahamas. Although Superstorm Sandy ultimately passed 500 miles off Rhode Island’s shore, severe damage was caused by the storm surge. Since the Ocean State does not often suffer from big storm events, few to no staff members were familiar with the process to secure FHWA funding for clean up. Rhode Island battled physical damage from the slow rise of flood water, which broke the flood elevation record by 7 ft. Rhode Island employed lessons learned from Hurricane Irene in their response to Sandy, including deploying teams to conduct inspections ahead of the storm, defining and communicating evacuation routes, and establishing internal and external communication plans during the storm. Rhode Island maintained meticulous documentation, now realizing this was an essential step in securing Federal Highway funding for clean up as they learned from Hurricane Irene. Rhode Island sustained approximately $20 million dollars in damage.

Following Robert’s discussion, Robbin Peach, Program Manager for Resiliency, Capital Programs and Environmental Affairs for the Massachusetts Port Authority offered an alternative perspective on storm damage and emergency response as it relates to aviation and maritime. Prior to the Superstorm Sandy, Massport deployed on site engineers to perform inspections to identify all storm drains that must be cleaned ahead of the storm and any object that could become a hazard during a storm. During the storm, term contractors and resident engineers were deployed on site 24/7 to monitor and manage the damage. Key personnel met 48 hours prior to the storm to initiate a strategic tiered communications system, which included speaking with the National Command Center every 2 hours, and residents on site communicating by radio. Despite Sandy's strength, damage to Massport's resources was relatively minor, including $4 million in damage to roofing and other damage to solar panels and terminal flooding. Massport understands that the extent of damage depends on the timing between storm touch-down and tide. To increase their defenses in the future, Massport implemented a "Resiliency Working Group" based on the Department of Homeland Security Method and is currently designing their infrastructure for the Category II and Category III Hurricane. Massport also established a task force to re-evaluate the standards to which projects should be designed to and they are implementing education opportunities within the Division.

Michael Lonergan, Bureau Chief of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, closed the panel discussion by sharing Connecticut’s experience in response to severe storm events. The Connecticut Department of Transportation oversees 5,700 two-lane state roads with a work force of approximately 1400 employees. On average, Connecticut is faced with 12 storms over 20 hours in duration and 10 “activities” over 6 hrs in duration annually. Although 2014 has experienced the most severe winter storms, 2011 had the highest financial impact as a result of 70” of rain and over 93” of snow. Connecticut has implemented several strategies stemming from lessons learned in previous storms, including the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) which facilitates on-call equipment, pre-storm planning with utility companies and the closing of schools and work places to reduce cars on the road. Lastly, Michael highlighted that training is key as it encourages employees to work as a team.

Despite the close proximity of each state represented at the April WTS Luncheon, the extent and types of damage as a result of severe weather events varied. Each state deployed differing severe weather management plans, however it is clear that communication and training are top priorities in emergency response. Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island will continue to strive at being successful in managing extreme weather events, while also extracting constructive improvements to be implemented for the next storm. WTS Boston thanks each panelist and moderator Mary Jane O’Meara for taking their time to share their insight with our members.

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