The National Hurricane Center predicted “above normal” hurricane activity in the North Atlantic this year. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, and September is historically the most active month, according to the National Weather Service.
With September one day away, and Hurricane Harvey wreaking unprecedented devastation on Texas, Islanders may do well to take stock of their hurricane preparedness. Pictures from “the Great New England Hurricane of 1938” and Hurricane Bob in 1991 — a Category 2 hurricane — are stark reminders that we can, and will, be hit with a catastrophic storm at some point.
This past February, a blizzard exposed a state of disarray in regional emergency management on Martha’s Vineyard. Responding to a call from an Islander without power who was looking for a warming shelter, The Times investigated. After being passed from town official to town official, a reporter located an available warming shelter at Aquinnah town hall, and posted the information on The MV Times website that night, only to find out the next day that Aquinnah town hall had been shut tight. The misinformation was the result of a bad cell phone connection between then-town administrator Adam Wilson and then-emergency management director Gary Robinson, who was in Detroit at the time of the call.
“We have to do better. We’re on borrowed time,” Edgartown health agent Matt Poole, who takes an active role in emergency planning, told The Times shortly after the storm.
Speaking to The Times this week, Mr. Poole said since this past winter, some progress has been made in coordinating a regional emergency plan on the Vineyard with the formation of a Regional Emergency Planning Committee (REPC). “There’s been some solid progress with emergency managers from each town meeting more regularly, and things have become more formalized,” he said. “I’m still concerned that it’s still not a high priority for Vineyard towns, across multiple disciplines. Hopefully the REPC will put those disciplines in place, but we’re not there today.”
“We’ve been making modest progress,” REPC member and West Tisbury emergency management director (EMD) John Christensen told The Times. “Most everyone is onboard in principle. It’s been a battle to regionalize. There’s great [inter-town] coordination, but regionalization is a tough row to hoe on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Mr. Poole singled out Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose for moving the regional effort forward.
“We’re working on a regional memorandum of understanding [MOU] and we’re close to a final draft,” Chief Rose said. “It’s a well-drawn-out plan of how each community will support the regional shelter.”
The MOU establishes the Oak Bluffs School as the designated regional shelter for the Island. “All of our resources would be at Oak Bluffs School in the beginning,” he said. “We can fit about 150 individuals in that shelter.”
The shelter will be pet-friendly.
“If we need to branch out from there, we’re looking at approaching the high school for being a larger regional shelter,” Chief Rose said. “If we have to provide for 500 or 1,000 people, we’d need to put something together at the high school.”
Tweaks still have to be made to the MOU, in part so Oak Bluffs doesn’t bear an inordinate burden of the overall cost and staffing, but Chief Rose expects the MOU to be finalized at next Thursday’s emergency manager’s meeting. If all goes as planned, REPC members will then take the MOU to their respective boards of selectmen.
“We have some general agreement we want to use last winter’s blizzard as a springboard to make a request to selectmen for support,” Mr. Poole said. “I would think taxpayers would support it.”
With funding secured, the next step would be to hire an expert to formulate an “All Hazards Plan” for the Vineyard, which would range from a cruise ship mishap to a blizzard. “Hurricane and blizzard would be priority Nos. 1 and 2,” Mr. Poole said. “Once that’s locked in, it would be a matter of updating plans that are written, like the one for a pandemic. Once you have a plan, you have to practice it. A big piece of this is actually drilling it. If we do that, when it all hits the fan, we’ll be in a lot better shape.” One such drill is a six-town flu clinic planned for the Vineyard on Oct. 14: “The Vineyard has the biggest clinic on the Cape and Islands scheduled for this fall. It’s not as big as ones in the past, but it says we can work collectively here.”
Mr. Christensen, a former chief officer in the Merchant Marines, has taught at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy for the past 11 years. He said emergency management graduate students from Mass. Maritime will be developing a tabletop exercise specifically for the Vineyard in the coming year. “When they’re done right, tabletop exercises can be very productive,” he said.
Mr. Christensen urged Islanders to become engaged in the planning effort. On Oct. 3, a representative from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) will come to the Island to give a three-hour training course in shelter management. “We’re really hoping to get a good turnout for that,” he said. “These volunteers will play a key role when we have a major event like a hurricane.”
An extensive list of hurricane preparedness is available at the MEMA website.
“We’d recommend that people living on an island stock extra supplies,” MEMA spokesman Chris Besse told The Times.
If a hurricane churns up the Eastern Seaboard this year, Mr. Christensen said the REPC would meet 72 hours before expected landfall, and then as frequently as needed after that. The REPC would be joined by members of police and fire departments, town officials, staff from the Vineyard Transit Authority, MEMA, and the National Weather Service.
A first tactical step would be getting Eversource repair crews to the Island. “We’ve had good communication with them in the past,” he said. “We have a call list for each town for heavy equipment, and we’ll start moving debris off the road as soon as possible so crews and first responders can get where they need to be.”
As maps on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission website show, down-Island towns are the most vulnerable to storm surge — the deadliest and most destructive element of a hurricane. A particular concern is the low-lying coastal roads leading to the hospital that will carry the injured and the staff who will look after them. Alternate routes, such as Barnes Road, cut through heavily wooded areas.
While up-Island is considered higher ground, it’s not immune to flooding. “South Road in Chilmark is subject to inundation, and the right conditions at Squibnocket would turn Aquinnah into an island,” Mr. Christensen said. “Up-Island towns have the most potential for property damage and injury from falling trees. If a hurricane skirts the island to the south, and winds come from the southwest, tree damage will be particularly heavy. Trees are used to northeast storms.”
Food supply could well be an issue for the Island. “Our supermarkets don’t have well-stocked basements,” Mr. Christensen said. “You see those big trucks coming over on the boat every day. The stores could run out pretty quickly.”
If the Steamship Authority was unable to serve the Island due to damage to the terminal or to the fleet, Mr. Christensen said, tractor-trailers would be packed with meals ready to eat (MRE) and shipped out of New Bedford.
“Getting food and water to people is relatively easy compared to getting everyone’s power back,” he said. “We have a lot of people on this Island who need power for well water and for their septic system.”
If a major storm is imminent, Mr. Christensen said, people on septic and well water should fill their bathtubs with water. “You can flush the toilet with it, and you can boil it and drink it,” he said. “It would be great to have a generator, but it costs thousands less to fill your bathtub. That should get you through a couple of days.”
Support for seniors
The elderly, the fastest growing segment of the Vineyard population, require specialized disaster planning. Oak Bluffs Council on Aging administrator Rose Cogliano has put an emphasis on outreach to over 1,000 seniors, and emergency planning is an essential part of that effort. “We go through our town taxpayer list each year, and our outreach coordinator Dianne Figuerido informs them of the services they can receive, and asks them if they want to be on our hurricane list. We take it very seriously,” she said. “We share this information with the fire department, and we work collegially with them. We list people’s pets as well. People don’t leave without their pets.”
To prepare for hurricanes and other natural disasters, Ms. Cogliano suggested old and young alike follow the guidelines provided on the Department of Homeland Security website, ready.gov. Essentials include one gallon of water per person per day, at least three day’s supply, a three-day nonperishable supply of food, a manual can opener, flashlight, and batteries.
The emergency preparation webpage for seniors recommends they create a network of family and friends who can check on them, and to make sure some of those people have an extra key. “They should stock at least two weeks of medications, even up to a month,” Ms. Cogliano said. She also recommends a “file of life,” which lists medications, allergies, and other pertinent health information, and attaches to the refrigerator. The Oak Bluffs Council on Aging gives one to every senior on the outreach list. “They’re super. I just ordered 400 more of them,” she said.
“Bottom line is, People need to have a kit for themselves and for their pet, ready to go,” Ms. Cogliano said.
Oak Bluffs seniors not on the hurricane list are urged to call Ms. Figuerido at 508-693-4509, ext. 2.