Federal and state emergency management coordinators visited Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday evening, to help advise on regional emergency planning.
The visit comes in the aftermath of the Island’s confused response to the unrealized threat of Hurricane Earl. Residents got mixed messages from town governments about road closures, business closures, and other emergency procedures.
Dukes County emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir organized the information session at the Howes House in West Tisbury. Selectmen from Aquinnah, Tisbury, and West Tisbury attended, plus emergency management directors from all towns except Aquinnah. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay head (Aquinnah), Dukes County, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army were also represented.
Scott Erickson represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He is chief of logistics for all New England states. Jeffrey Trask, government affairs coordinator, James Mannion, region two manager, and Doug Forbes, a local coordinator represented the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).
Mr. Trask outlined a 1986 federal law that requires communities to establish either a local or regional emergency planning committee to deal with the threat of hazardous materials. Over the years, the law has become a foundation for other emergency planning, including for hurricanes and blizzards.
“The current trend across the Commonwealth is to go regional,” Mr. Trask said. He said nearly all of the communities in central and western Massachusetts have organized regional committees, mostly based within county boundaries. “The model has been extremely successful,” Mr. Trask said. “We ask you to develop a comprehensive emergency management plan. Often it’s a compilation of all towns’ plans. You want to make sure you’re not planning in a vacuum.”
MEMA provided guidance and certification for 24 regional emergency planning committees. “We’ve got the system down pretty well.”
Mr. Trask said certification puts regional planning committees in position to apply for state grants. He said because there is strength in numbers, regional committees are more likely to secure state funding.
Mr. Erickson said a regional approach is essential to deal with emergency supplies such as water, food, and portable shelter shipped in by FEMA in an emergency.
“My recommendation would be that as an Island, you plan regionally,” Mr. Erickson said. “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.”
Mr. Erickson said before Hurricane Earl, FEMA responded to an urgent request from Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell to pre-stage emergency supplies on the Island. He said the federal agency pulled out all the stops to get a truckload of water and a truckload of tarps on the Steamship Authority ferry. “That was without a (presidential) declaration (of emergency),” Mr. Erickson said. “Technically, we weren’t supposed to do it. The systems weren’t in place. Even though we did that for Earl, there was a lot of push back that said ‘you shouldn’t have done that.'”
While there was little discussion among Island officials about what went wrong in preparing for Hurricane Earl, they did question the state and federal officials closely about whether towns would give up their legal authority or liability if a regional committee were formed, how a regional committee could develop protocols for the Code Red emergency notification phone system, how a regional structure might facilitate communication during an emergency, and how selectmen might get a better understanding of what emergency resources are available and how they can be distributed.
“Cooperation would be essential,” West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said. “We have one hospital, one airport. Roads, some are state roads, some are town roads. That became an issue with Earl, and needs clarification still.”
“We need to sit down and discuss protocol for an emergency,” Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal said. “I want the information. I want to be able to make a decision. Right now, I don’t know what we have on the Island for an emergency. We can’t have a renegade person out there saying we need this and we need that.”
Mr. Martell said communication at the emergency management director level was excellent, but he agreed to arrange a meeting of selectmen and emergency management planners to clear up any confusion.