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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.

A disaster recovery checklist

Here are a few pointers to help prepare your public works department for dealing with a disaster.

  • Be prepared with plans, processes, and procedures. Hold practice exercises to work out any kinks.
  • Have contracts in place with an emergency services contractor and owners of pre-identified staging area sites, debris collection, and reduction sites.
  • Stage first responders at various shelters or other secure locations, spread out to get a jump on recovery efforts. Work out agreements with power companies to react quickly to road clearing in the first 24 hours following the all-clear.
  • Notify FEMA as soon as possible to get representatives to the area. Get direction from them, in writing if possible, and follow proper procedures to maximize reimbursement of costs. Establish lines of communication with state emergency management contacts.
  • Monitor, track, and electronically document cleanup operations. Have regular meetings with all appropriate players.
  • Keep the public and decision-makers informed. Set deadlines and enforce them. Have mechanisms in place to deal effectively with complaints.
  • Wrap things up as quickly as possible but do things right. Have a debriefing session afterward to go over lessons learned. Revise your plans accordingly.
  • Working with FEMA

    The National Hurricane Center has predicted another active tropical storm season in 2005. With this in mind, it seems prudent to plan for the eventuality of local government interaction with FEMA in pursuit of reimbursement for disaster response and recovery expenses through the public assistance program.

    Based on the 2004 experience, a shift in the historical trends has begun. Developing complete, accurate records of all aspects of disaster-related activities from day one is critical. Plan to compile these records in electronic format. FEMA seems to have migrated from the previously accepted method of a 10% sampling applied to the total effort to what is now 100% verification through a computerized screening process.

    Failing to provide complete documentation could result in large losses of reimbursement previously thought to be secure. Virtually all Florida counties affected by the 2004 hurricanes had such problems.

    Pumping out the water

    What do you do with all the water that collects in your area after a large rain event or hurricane? Regional Utilities Inc., Santa Rosa, Fla., proactively established lift station backup systems for the Florida communities they service. The company is a regional provider of water and sewer services to Walton County, Fla., operating 125 lift stations and serving several hundred thousand residents in the gulf coast area.

    Regional Utilities began researching power alternatives about four years ago after Hurricane Opal struck the Florida panhandle. The powerful hurricane caused power outages and heavy damage to several of the company's lift stations. Lightning strikes and damage to generator control panels prevented backup generators from operating.

    Dewey Wilson, general manager for Regional Utilities, researched the possibility of permanent, hard-piped, diesel engine-driven pumps as emergency backups for the lift stations. He contacted Rick Waters with Thompson Pump in Pensacola, Fla., to find out if he could secure pumps that would automatically start after a shutdown or failure at any of the company's master lift stations. Waters advised that the pumps would have to able to prime fast enough to prevent lift station overflows and handle the estimated capacities for each of the lift stations. In addition, the automatic start system would have to be simple enough to lie in wait for a long period, but reliable enough to guarantee starting the pumps.

    “We've had several utilities purchase pumps from us for portable lift station backups, but this was the first time that we had a permanent application,” said Waters. Waters recommended self-priming, solids-handling pumps with dry-priming systems and automatic start/stop capability. The automatic start/stop systems would operate with floats that turned the pumps on when fluid levels rose and turned them off when fluid levels fell. The pumps would be permanently installed at the 10 master lift station locations, with piping installed to provide suction and discharge.

    The big test for this permanent backup system using Thompson pumps came in August and September of 2004. One hurricane after another blasted through Florida, and each took out local power in the areas they hit. However, Regional Utilities' backup pumps kicked into gear and maintained the utility's service through each siege.

    Since installing the Thompson pumps, Regional Utilities performs periodic maintenance to keep the pumps in top condition. “All we ever do is start them occasionally and check on the batteries,” said Wilson. “We use solar battery chargers to keep the batteries fully charged.” Regional also uses the pumps to perform occasional lift station repairs.

    Brad Fine is with Thompson Pump in Port Orange, Fla.