Oak Bluffs emergency director resists regional emergency plan

Ralph Stewart

Although Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell attended an organizational meeting of the Island’s newly formed Regional Emergency Planning Committee (REPC) Tuesday, he made it clear he wants no part of the regional effort. For now, Oak Bluffs will chart its own course.

Five Island towns, Dukes County, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) met Tuesday to form an REPC to facilitate a coordinated response to hurricanes, blizzards, hazardous material spills, and other emergencies. Their action follows a request from the all-Island selectmen’s organization to find a better approach to emergency response, after an uncoordinated and often confusing town-by-town response to Hurricane Earl in September 2010.

Oak Bluffs officials directed Mr. Martell to attend the meeting with an open mind and an interest in the status of the plans. Mr. Martell resisted participation and criticized the concept.

Just minutes after Tuesday’s meeting began, Mr. Martell and members of the new committee raised questions about the nuts and bolts application of emergency planning, with a town that is home to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, refusing to participate.

“One of the things I’ve had a real difficult time with is setting up disaster plans,” Mr. Martell told the group. “The hospital was mentioned. That really upsets the sovereignty of the towns. We shouldn’t do that. This group shouldn’t do that.”

“In this case, every board of selectmen except Oak Bluffs has asked us to stand up this committee,” Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said. Mr. Carroll led more than a year of planning to form the new REPC. “The committee won’t be giving instructions to Oak Bluffs. We hope we know what’s happening at the hospital, what’s happening at the high school.”

Oak Bluffs officials are confident that their own disaster plans will protect the town’s residents in the event of a hurricane or other weather emergency.

“We have a highly developed local emergency planning committee,” Kathy Burton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “I have a binder three inches thick of emergency plans and procedures developed by our emergency management director.”

What is not clear is how the towns will avoid a repeat of the confusion that occurred during Hurricane Earl.

In the preparation for that 2010 storm, Island residents received mixed messages about what they should do.

Oak Bluffs officially declared roads closed and ordered businesses to shut down, though town officials had no authority under state law to take such action. Edgartown left it up to businesses owners to make the call and travelers were advised to stay off the roads.

When the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm, some towns changed curfew times, with short notice to other towns.

Planning push

A 1986 federal law requires every community to establish a local emergency planning committee, or join with others to form a regional committee. The law was intended to make sure communities have a plan to deal with a hazardous materials emergency, such as a chemical spill. But over the years, committees have become a foundation for other emergency planning, including for hurricanes and blizzards. With a relatively small amount of hazardous materials on the Island, organizers of the Martha’s Vineyard REPC have focused mostly on weather emergencies, in forming the committee.

Officials from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) visited the Island in 2010 for an informational meeting. They strongly encouraged local emergency management directors to follow a regional approach. Nearly all of the communities in central and western Massachusetts have organized regional committees, mostly based within county boundaries.

At the 2010 organization meeting, state and federal officials said a regional approach will be essential when allocating resources such as food, water, and portable shelters shipped to the Island in an emergency.

“My recommendation would be that as an Island, you plan regionally,” said Scott Erickson of FEMA at that 2010 meeting. “There’s no way we are going to do it broken down into six individual communities. It’s going to be absolutely imperative that we deliver those resources as a package to the Island. It’s going to have to be a collective effort to offload the planes, break down and repackage the commodities.”

Planning support

MEMA provides guidance and certification for more than two dozen regional emergency planning committees in Massachusetts.

The state agency provides funding to regional committees through a grant process. Grants usually amount to about $2,000, to cover specific projects like writing an emergency plan or conducting a drill.

State certification also puts regional planning committees in position to apply for other state grants, and regional committees are more likely to secure state funding, according to MEMA officials.

Peter Judge, a spokesman for MEMA, said state and federal officials would offer help to Oak Bluffs in the event of an emergency, but the town might have to pick up the costs later.

“It’s not a question of ‘you’re not a member, we’re not going to help you,” Mr. Judge said. “But somebody might be getting a bill.”

If Oak Bluffs is not part of the initial organizing effort, it may have the option of joining later.

On Cape Cod, Barnstable County organized a regional emergency planning committee that has worked very well, according to emergency planners. At the beginning, every Cape town except Falmouth was part of the organization. Last year, Falmouth decided to come on board.