Hurricanes a threat to the Vineyard? You bet

Response capacity is modest and evacuation logistically unrealistic.

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New Bedford is equipped with a hurricane barrier. It's likely some SSA ferries would seek safe harbor behind it in the event of a hurricane here.

The potential for future hurricane devastation across Martha’s Vineyard deeply concerns the Island’s emergency managers, according to Gary Robinson, Aquinnah’s emergency manager and the chairman of the Island emergency managers.

Robinson said a Category 4 hurricane would destroy a large number of buildings in every town, while “a Category 5 hurricane could potentially destroy or extensively damage the majority of structures on the island.”

“It is likely that even in a Category 5 situation that a few of the buildings on the Island will still be standing and potentially somewhat functional,” he wrote. “This would include those buildings that were constructed of brick or concrete, i.e. the Tisbury School and the new Coast Guard Station boathouse, and potentially some of the newer residential homes on the Island, if they were built to withstand hurricane winds. Also it is likely that most if not all of the historic lighthouses on the Island would still be standing, as their round shape really helps mitigate the effects of wind forces.”

Whatever the severity of the hurricane the Vineyard may face someday, as it stands now, an evacuation of the population isn’t likely to succeed, he said, especially in the summer season when the number of people on-Island multiplies by a factor of eight. Islanders, he said, need to prepare themselves to shelter in place, as the Vineyard’s emergency management capacity, let alone the state’s and federal government’s, will be beyond capacity in such an event.

“Our first task, collectively, will be to get the roads cleared,” John Christensen, public information officer for the Island emergency managers and a Massachusetts Maritime Academy instructor, said. “Because nothing is happening until that’s done. Power has to be shut down all over to do that. Then we can get to stranded people. Get water to them, and start restoring the power.”

Robinson said Vineyarders would do well to store three days to a week’s worth of food and water as a safety net for enduring the aftermath of a hurricane. Christenson said the focus should be on provisions like peanut butter, canned tuna, beans, and bottled water. He likened what some people scramble for ahead of a storm as a mad rush to acquire the ingredients for French toast — milk, eggs, bread. Without cooking heat or refrigeration, these are poor choices, he said, as they’re perishable. Christensen also recommended a portable generator. Robinson said for those who buy them, it is important to remember there will be no gasoline available after a hurricane because it takes electricity to power the fuel pumps. Having on hand a supply of whatever the generator runs on, gas or propane, is important.

Unlike in the recent past era of landlines, which Christensen described as rarely failing even after terrible weather, absent a satellite phone, Islanders shouldn’t expect mobile phone use.

“Cell phones won’t be coming back for a long time, and they’ll go out early,” he said.

Even if the hurricane hasn’t demolished the Steamship Authority terminals, there is really no place to go to from the Vineyard, Robinson said. Falmouth has no plan to manage 16,000 to 120,000 people, and would be hard-pressed to accommodate them, especially when their infrastructure is likely to be gutted too. So too New Bedford, he said. Furthermore, he said, ferrying evacuees to the Cape is just bringing them to another Island, one with two choke points — the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges.

Robinson said Islanders need to come to grips with the reality that the Vineyard will be on the low end of state priorities if a hurricane that hits the Vineyard also tears into major metropolitan areas. Help will be slow in coming.

If you do not have modern windows that are up to hurricane standards, Christensen said, fastening plywood over those windows is a good idea, as is staying away from all windows during the hurricane.
Robinson said the initial rescue responses, beyond people in immediate peril or those who are injured, will be directed at the elderly and the those with serious medical needs. Thereafter, incrementally, first responders can address others in need. However, he stressed, the Vineyard’s resources, are finite, and will not likely be supplemented by outside aid for days, at the very least.

Christenson surmised the Steamship Authority will reposition all its vessels behind the New Bedford–Fairhaven Hurricane Barrier. As long as they are moored properly and runaway ships don’t collide with any of them, they should make it through hurricane conditions behind that barrier.

Sean Driscoll, spokesman for the Steamship Authority, said the whole ferry fleet isn’t likely to go behind the barrier.

“We could reposition vessels at our Fairhaven repair facility,” he wrote, “but in general it would be limited to the number we could berth there at a time, which is three at max. Depending on the direction of the storm, we would berth the rest of our fleet either on an island or on the mainland during a storm.”

How the ferries would navigate flotsam-littered waters, and whether they could get people aboard if the slips In Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven were wiped out, is unclear. Even if they can load Islanders, Robinson’s contention remains: Nearby port cities aren’t prepared for an influx of evacuees. Christenson said in lieu of regular ferries, fast ferries might be considered to evacuate Islanders to as far away as Quonset, R.I. How to shelter and feed them when they arrive would still be an issue.


How storms are rated

The three most powerful types of hurricanes on Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, as interpreted by the National Weather Service, are as follows:

  • Category 3: Sustained winds 111 to 129 mph. Dangerous winds cause extensive damage. Some structural damage to houses and buildings, with a minor amount of wall failures. Unanchored structures and poorly constructed signs are destroyed. Many windows in high-rise buildings will be dislodged and become airborne. Persons struck by windborne debris risk injury and possible death. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, and block numerous roads. Near total power loss is expected, with outages that could last from several days to weeks.
  • Category 4: Sustained winds 130 to 156 mph. Extremely dangerous winds causing devastating damage are expected. Some wall failures with some complete roof structure failures on houses. All signs are blown down. Complete destruction of unanchored structures. Extensive damage to doors and windows is likely. Numerous windows in high-rise buildings will be dislodged and become airborne. Windborne debris will cause extensive damage, and persons struck by the wind-blown debris will be injured or killed. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted. Fallen trees could cut off residential areas for days to weeks. Electricity will be unavailable for weeks after the hurricane passes.
  • Category 5: Sustained winds greater than 157 mph. Catastrophic damage is expected. Complete roof failure on many residences and industrial buildings. Some complete building failures, with small buildings blown over or away. All signs blown down. Complete destruction of unanchored structures. Severe and extensive window and door damage will occur. Nearly all windows in high-rise buildings will be dislodged and become airborne. Severe injury or death is likely for persons struck by wind-blown debris. Nearly all trees will be snapped or uprooted, and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months.