Martha’s Vineyard towns go it alone in hurricane response

Emergency management directors meet with selectmen, public safety officials, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army in a planning meeting three days before Irene arrived. — Photo by Steve Myrick

As emergency planners worked through their predetermined plans for response to Hurricane Irene last week, they quickly settled on a strategy of acting almost completely autonomously in their approach to getting information out, sheltering residents, issuing travel advisories, closing beaches, and regulating businesses.

They generally agree that approach worked well and allowed them to adapt quickly to the changing weather conditions.

“We were prepared and continually updated our preparations as the storm continually changed,” Edgartown fire chief and emergency management director Peter Shemeth told Edgartown selectmen at their Monday meeting. “It looked like a category 2 hurricane, then a category 1, and when it finally got here it was none of the above.”

However, some planners raised questions this week about whether a regional approach to emergencies would use scarce resources more efficiently, and keep the public safer in the event of a more severe disaster.

While reluctant to talk publically, several emergency management directors indicated this week that petty grudges and long-running disputes among emergency planners and town officials continue to hamper efforts to mount a regional response.

“Each town pretty much kept their heads down and dealt with their own problems,” John Christensen, emergency management director for West Tisbury said. “You wouldn’t want to send an Island-wide message that Beach Road is closed, we’re discouraging them from driving. Lambert’s Cove Road was closed because of a tree down on a power line, but it was open 45 minutes later. You’re not going to send out a message about that.”

No agreement

Emergency management directors, selectmen, public safety officers, and other town officials involved in a hurricane planning meeting last Thursday could come to no agreement on an Island-wide message to be distributed over the Island’s “Code Red” reverse phone messaging system.

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

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

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

Unable to come to any consensus 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,” Mr. Shemeth of Edgartown said.

Oak Bluffs selectman Kathy Burton said that approach is what led to complaints during the response to Hurricane Earl last September.

“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.”

Any Island wide message is issued through the Dukes County Sheriff’s Department. No Island-wide messages were issued leading up to, or during Hurricane Irene.

The Code Red system allows any authorized town official to send out a message to residents of that town, through a password-protected computer program.

When surf washing over the sea wall on Sea View Avenue in Oak Bluffs forced officials to close Beach Road, Edgartown issued an alert through its separate text message system.

“Access to Oak Bluffs from Edgartown via Beach Rd is closed due to washover in OB @ Seaview,” the message read. Most towns also forwarded all emergency communications to The Times.

But Oak Bluffs did not issue any message about the road closure, though a Code Red message issued on Friday urged resdients to stay off the roads during and after the storm.

“The road is often closed in a nor’easter,” Ms. Burton told The Times in an e-mail message. “The barriers go up and Harthaven uses their exit out the back through the school. They have a key to the gate.”

The Code Red system allows town officials to target small areas of each town for specific messages. Using maps showing flood scenarios for the entire Island, integrated with the Code Red system, Mr. Christensen was able to direct a very specific message to a small group of residents.

“I sent a targeted message just to the people around Tisbury Great Pond, letting them know they may want to think about getting to higher ground,” Mr. Christensen said.

He said there are still issues with incorrect addresses in the Code Red system.

“We’ve been having quite a go-around getting the calling lists correct, since the underlying database is the same one that insists on sending my UPS packages to Vineyard Haven,” Mr. Christensen said in an e-mail message to The Times.

He asks residents to complete an on-line survey to help evaluate and improve the system.

Cable cut

A serious problem for up-Island towns was the loss of Comcast cable service. “Internet went out really early,” Dukes County emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir said. “Internet is a major problem, it’s a Comcast problem and they have not addressed it. That really needs to be addressed. That’s a major problem.”

Mr. Carroll of Chilmark said town hall lost Comcast service at noon on Sunday.

“We had no more access to weather reports, couldn’t update our web site,” Mr. Carroll said. “We’re going to have to figure out some other way to get Internet. There didn’t appear to be any physical damage to the system, it’s just the batteries went dead. For three towns to lose their lifeline, that’s crazy.”

Mr. Carroll said the town would explore other communications services in the future. With mobile phone service spotty even during serene weather, many up-Island residents rely exclusively on home phone service. Those who use Comcast for phone service were left with no way to communicate.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said there are battery back-ups in the cable infrastructure, and that customers could expect up to eight hours of battery life after power goes out.

“Comcast services remained stable throughout the course of this weather event,” Mr. Goodman said Tuesday. “Virtually all customers whose service was affected by power outages are now restored.” He said all service was restored by Wednesday.

Mr. Christensen said the loss of cable service forced emergency management officials back to basics.

“We were not exactly in the dark, but we were back to listening to the weather radio,” Mr. Christensen said.

He too will be looking for ways to disseminate information that do not rely on electrical or Internet service. He said Twitter, a social media service that allows 140-character text messages to be sent over mobile phones, may be worth exploring. That system would be vulnerable to mobile phone tower damage, he said. He was surprised that mobile phone service on the Island worked throughout the storm. Mobile phone towers and other equipment were knocked out in New York and other areas hit harder by Irene.

Gimme shelter

Four towns opened emergency shelters, with a handful of residents taking advantage of safe, warm quarters and meals. Each town opened shelters at 4 pm Saturday, and most closed them at 4 pm Sunday.

About ten people stayed overnight at the Oak Bluffs School. About ten more took shelter at the Chilmark Community Center, including one resident who needed a power supply to administer oxygen. Nine spent time at the Edgartown School, and seven at the Tisbury School.

West Tisbury was unable to open a shelter because the usual location, the West Tisbury School, is still under construction for a renovation project. Any West Tisbury residents requesting shelter were directed to another town.

Local Red Cross volunteers staffed some of the Island shelters, but the national organization told Island emergency planners it would prefer a more efficient plan in the future.

“The National Red Cross wants to run one shelter on the island,” Mr. Christensen said. “It makes sense from their point of view. They had three shelters in all the rest of Massachusetts, and we have four.”

High praise

Overall, emergency planners were pleased at the Island’s response to Irene, and offered high praise for the public safety officials and others who organized the efforts, as well as residents who took sensible precautions.

In Edgartown, Harbormaster Charlie Blair and his staff had to deal with only a handful of boats that broke loose during the storm. He urged and ordered people out of the harbor if at all possible in the week leading up to the storm. Of approximately 700 boats that were in the harbor, all but about 100 were moved to other locations or hauled out.

“I just want everybody to know we were prepared for a full force hurricane and we only got a tropical storm with landfall hundreds of miles away, and it was still pretty much rock and roll,” Mr. Blair said. “We got half a storm. You can’t prepare enough for a real hurricane, if that was half.”

Edgartown officials lauded Mr. Darack’s effort at keeping residents informed through the town’s web site, text messaging, and Code Red messages. Selectmen voted Monday to make him the town’s public information officer. “Now we’ve officially voted what you are anyway,” selectman Margaret Serpa said.

In Oak Bluffs, Ms. Burton thanked the emergency management planners for taking care of town residents.

“We’ve got a crack team here, and everybody worked really well together, and everyone should feel really safe,” Ms. Burton said.

Newly elected selectmen Mike Santoro commented on his first experience dealing with emergency planning as an elected official.

“Every step of the way I felt confident,” Mr. Santoro said. “As much as everyone made a big deal over the last hurricane, it was overkill. what I saw, you can never be overprepared.”