Latest: As Irene approaches, Island towns agree on mixed message

The latest National Weather service map as of 5 pm, Thursday. — Photo courtesy of NOAA

Martha’s Vineyard officials and emergency planners from the six Island towns met at noon Thursday in the Dukes County administration building at Martha’s Vineyard Airport to coordinate emergency planning in the face of approaching hurricane Irene.

There was much talk but no agreement on a coordinated approach to using the Code Red notification system. Each town agreed to issue its own message.

Although the forecasts yesterday predicted the storm will pass well to the west of Martha’s Vineyard it is still expected to bring strong winds, heavy rain and pounding surf.

Latest storm information

The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for all of coastal Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard, in its 8 am bulletin Friday morning. The hurricane watch extends from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, to the mouth of the Merrimack River in Newburyport. A tropical storm watch is in effect for inland parts of the state.

Hurricane Irene is predicted to skirt the coast of North Carolina tomorrow as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, then accelerate quickly while gradually weakening.

Forecasters anticipate tropical storm force winds will arrive on Martha’s Vineyard some time Sunday morning, and continue through midnight.

At 8 am, Hurricane Irene was off the Northern coast of Florida, with sustained winds of 110 miles per hour, moving due north at 14 miles per hour.

A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the watch area, according to the National Weather Service. A watch is typically issues 48 hours before tropical storm force winds reach the watch area, conditions that make outside preparations dangerous or difficult.

National Weather Service forecasters have shifted the predicted track of hurricane Irene westward over the past 24 hours and now anticipate the powerful storm will skirt the coast of North Carolina, make a second landfall over Eastern Long Island, and continue on a path just west of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Forecasters caution that Irene is a very large storm, and tropical storm force winds, (39-73 mph) with gusts of hurricane strength (74-110 mph) are likely for Martha’s Vineyard.

“We anticipate the leading edge of tropical storm force winds approaching the south coast (of Massachusetts) some time Sunday morning, our best guess might be mid- to late morning,” said Bob Thompson, the top meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Taunton during the noon conference call with Island emergency planners. “Preparations should be complete by Saturday night.”

Mr. Thompson said if the track forecast holds, the Island will experience the worst of the wind, but not as much rain. “The wind field will extend quite far,” Mr. Thompson said. “We anticipate there will be damaging winds along and to the east of the track, we anticipate heavy rains along and to the west of the track.”

While forecasters expect Irene to speed up, and weaken after landfall in North Carolina, they said the weakening would be gradual.

Mr. Thompson said a storm surge of five to eight feet could arrive on the Island just ahead of the storm. A storm surge is caused when hurricane winds push water toward the shoreline. The surge is often the most dangerous element of a hurricane.

The height of the storm surge will depend on the timing of the storm and the tides. Tides will be abnormally high because of the moon’s phase. Sunday is the date of the new moon. High tides on Sunday in the down-Island towns are about 7 am, and 8pm.

Emergency preparations

At the noon Thursday meeting, Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell suggested an Island wide alert be broadcast with the Code Red automated phone messaging system. Officials from other towns objected to Mr. Martell’s suggested wording.

Mr. Martell came in for harsh criticism one year ago when he insisted he had the authority to order Oak Bluffs roads and businesses closed in advance of the storm.

Town officials from Chilmark and Edgartown said their towns would not allow any Code Red messages to their residents, without approving the messages first.

Unable to come to any agreement Thursday on the wording of a regional message, emergency management directors agreed that each town would send its own messages.

“Let’s do it town by town, that way we don’t have to argue about it,” Chilmark executive secretary and emergency management director Tim Carroll said.

“There isn’t going to be any flak doing it town by town,” Edgartown fire chief and emergency management director Peter Shemeth said.

Oak Bluffs selectman Kathy Burton said that approach is what led to complaints last year.

“One of the biggest criticisms of the past was that we’re all doing different things,” Ms. Burton said. “I don’t expect to solve that problem, but we would like to know what everybody is saying.”

The arrival of Hurricane Earl on September 4, 2010 was the first test of the new Island wide emergency notification system. It was not well received.

Island residents received mixed messages from public announcements and on town websites, leading to a backlash from business owners and residents, and friction among town officials.

West Tisbury issued a travel advisory. Tisbury referenced a “suggested driving ban for 24 hours.” Edgartown requested that non-emergency vehicles stay off the road. And Oak Bluffs declared most roads would be closed. Aquinnah and Chilmark announced no restrictions.

A non-emergency announcement from the Oak Bluffs police department with information about fireworks parking, times, and transportation last Thursday generated more animosity at the afternoon meeting.

Several officials objected to the issuance of an Island wide Code Red announcement without prior approval by selectmen in each town.

Raining cats and dogs

The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are already moving volunteers and supplies into the region. The Red Cross will staff some Island shelters.

There were conflicting messages at Thursday’s meeting about whether residents would be allowed to bring pets to emergency shelters.

The issue is important if evacuations are ordered. Some people are reluctant to leave their homes without bringing their pets.

Oak Bluffs has a plan in place to segregate and house pets at its shelter, Chilmark officials said the town welcomes pets, but it is unclear whether pets will be accepted at shelters staffed by Red Cross volunteers. According to volunteer Deborah Medders, Red Cross policy does not allow its volunteers to staff shelters unless the town has an emergency plan outlining how people and animals will be segregated, and accepts legal liability.

One factor that could complicate public awareness is a long planned change in Comcast cable connections. On Thursday, the cable company implemented a new technical system that requires adding a digital conversion box for some channels. Among the channels subscribers will not be able to see without the digital conversion box is The Weather Channel, according to Mr. Shemeth.