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Dealing with disaster

Dealing with disaster

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Laurence Letellier worked closely with local government agencies, FEMA, and power companies to efficiently clean up after two back-to-back hurricanes in September 2004.

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Gregory A. Frink (left), and Reginald Willis Sr. from the Marion County Code Enforcement Department had to carefully assess the debris removal in the right of way. They investigated and documented illegally dumped debris from the hurricanes.

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    Photo: Todd Anderson/Black Star

    Employees at the Emergency Operations Center worked together to coordinate incoming calls about flooding, debris, and downed power lines. Planning ahead for an event like a hurricane can help centers like this run smoothly.

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    Photo: Laurence Letellier

    Removing trees and other debris from the right of way fell to the public works department.

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    Photos: Laurence Letellier (left) and Todd Anderson/Black Star (right)

    Burning debris (left) and chipping debris (right) were used to eliminate vegetative debris. Burning is generally cheaper than grinding due to the need to haul away and dispose of the chips.

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    Photo: Laurence Letellier

    Although Marion County is landlocked, flooding was a problem, especially for emergency crews trying to get through.

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    Photo: Thompson Pump

    This shows one of 10 permanent Thompson Pump emergency backup pumps used by Regional Utilities in Walton County, Fla. The pumps are equipped with automatic start/stop systems.

Communication and information systems are crucial to a coordinated operation. They also may be the weak link during an emergency. Throughout the storms, when our cell phone walkie-talkie services failed for long periods, our own mobile radio system was the only reliable way to communicate with our field crews and with fire-rescue teams. Our repeater tower held up through the storms with a backup power generator.

We lost Internet access at our public works Special Operations Center (SOC) for a short period, but service was up and running most of the time. This enabled us to access storm information online and to communicate via e-mail. During the second storm, we had cable TV service at our SOC, which stayed up throughout the storm, so we were able to monitor storm events. Landline phone service was available, allowing us to fax throughout both events. However, we had a contingency plan in place to send out runners in the event our other methods of communication failed.

Early on, we found that the volunteers manning phones at the EOC were not getting complete information from citizen callers, emergency management services, or law enforcement. Therefore, we developed a form for the EOC to use that helped them gather the appropriate information.

The process began by tracking reported trouble locations on handwritten lists. We had not imagined before the event the sheer magnitude of problem locations, which, in our case, numbered 835 for Frances and 794 for Jeanne. We also had not considered how cumbersome it would be to sort the various types of problems—flooding, trees blocking roads, and power lines blocking roads—so that different groups of emergency responders could deal with clearing them. We quickly developed a spreadsheet on a laptop computer to track and sort the data in several different ways to provide only the appropriate data to the various groups that needed to use it.

We did not have backup power in our SOC for Hurricane Frances, but we were fortunate to have experienced only a short-term power outage. By the next storm, we had an emergency generator. Throughout both events, we were able to transmit information via fax and e-mail.

Spreadsheets were an invaluable tool for tracking various reports and other aspects throughout the response effort. Most of the first reports of blocked roads (with and without power lines involved), flooding, washouts, and inoperable traffic signals came into our county EOC. The EOC relayed the information to our SOC, from which we dispatched crews to address these problems.

Staffing, Maps, and Flexibility

We anticipated the SOC staff would need to work a long first shift in case the second shift was not able to report due to the storm. We had arranged for food, water, and ice to sustain the staff for 72 hours. We also had space in the building housing our SOC where staff could sleep in case they were needed for an extended shift. We had a process in place to keep track of all our resources, including personnel.

We needed to be flexible in our processes, willing to make decisions quickly and implement adjustments as needed. Maps we printed initially were not adequate, so we revised them showing the grid for our quadrant addressing system, service-area boundaries of power companies, and smaller operation sectors that were manageable. We printed identical maps so that command, field crews, monitors, and inspectors were working from the same frame of reference.

Clay Coleman, acting roads division manager, with relief from roads safety manager Mike Rickman, commanded the SOC. Coleman ran operations through the worst of the back-to-back battles with the hurricanes.

“We did a lot of things right and we made a few mistakes. We quickly refocused and learned a lot. We will be better prepared if we ever have to do this again,” said Coleman.