February blizzard exposed disarray in Island emergency management

Emergency management officials worry over Island’s longstanding regional-response planning disarray.

The Eversource power outage map showed widespread outages at the height of the storm. – Courtesy Eversource

A fierce winter storm, dubbed “Niko” by The Weather Channel,  lashed Martha’s Vineyard with heavy snow and high winds as darkness fell on Thursday, Feb. 9. By 6 pm, the massive nor’easter had created blizzard conditions — defined by the National Weather Service as “considerable falling or blowing snow,” winds in excess of 35 mph, and visibilities of less than one-quarter of a mile — for more than four hours. Across Nantucket Sound, Hyannis had reported tree-snapping gusts of 70 mph.

As predicted, power outages were widespread. About 8,000 of the approximately 20,000 Island customers were without electricity at the storm’s peak, according to an Eversource spokesman.

A review of the preparation and response to Niko shows a systemic lack of planning, confusion, and the absence of an Island-wide coordinated response. Officials concerned with public safety and emergency response agree that, as one of them told The Times, “We have to do better.”

Search for shelter

At about 6:30 pm on Feb. 9, The Times received a call from a woman who’d been without power for several hours, asking if any warm shelters were open.

At first, calls made by The Times to Island police and fire departments, town officials, and emergency management directors (EMD) yielded no definite answer. The same was true of checks on town websites and first responder Facebook pages.

Edgartown Police Chief David Rossi said there were no plans to open a shelter in Edgartown, and that Oak Bluffs School would be the designated shelter if conditions warranted. Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose said no plans were in the works for a shelter, and suggested The Times call Grace Church in Tisbury. Calls to Grace Church, the Chilmark Police, and the Aquinnah Police were fielded by answering machines. A call to the West Tisbury emergency management director’s office kept ringing. No calls were made to Tisbury, because the Eversource outage map, incorrectly as it turned out, showed minimal disruption of service in that town.

Eventually, The Times reached Aquinnah emergency management director Gary Robinson on the phone number posted on the town website. He told The Times the old town hall in Aquinnah, on State Road, had heat, a backup generator, food, and water, and was open to those in need. It was welcome news, considering, according to the Eversource outage map, the Island’s most remote town was completely without power.

The Times posted news of the Aquinnah shelter on the newspaper’s website and continued calling. The Dukes County Sheriff’s Communications Center (ComCenter) told The Times that the Federated Church in Edgartown also offered shelter. The Times posted this on the website as well, even though a call to the church was answered by a machine.

Predictably, the ComCenter had a busy night.

“That storm sort of took people by surprise; I don’t think it was expected to be as bad as it was,” communications director Major Susan Schofield told The Times. “We had a lot of calls about trees in the roads and downed power lines, and there were a few calls from elderly people in West Tisbury who were without power and getting very cold. One also was a medical situation. But the West Tisbury police were right on it, and got them to safety.”

The following day, Feb. 10, when many in Aquinnah were still without power, The Times received an email reporting that the old Aquinnah town hall had not been open during the storm.

Subsequent investigation by The Times revealed that not only had the old Aquinnah town hall never been opened, but that Mr. Robinson was in Michigan when he told The Times that it was.

“I don’t know where it came out that it was open, because it never was open,” Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain told The Times. “Gary is living in Detroit for a while. Simon Bollin has stepped in to take his place. That’s who should have been asked. I was at the station until eight that night, and when I got home and saw that posted, I texted Adam [town administrator Adam Wilson], and he didn’t get my text until the next morning. There was some miscommunication, to say the least. Adam and I talked about it afterward, and next big storm, we’re going to be on top of it more.”

“There was definitely some confusion,” Aquinnah fire chief and acting emergency management director Simon Bollin said. “I’m the acting emergency manager because Gary was away. I read on the website that the shelter was open, and I was shocked because no one had contacted me in an official basis. Gary might have been on the Island, because he was for a little while, but I’m the acting emergency manager. At that point, I didn’t know the power was out in Aquinnah. I live in West Tisbury.”

Mr. Robinson called The Times on Tuesday from Michigan and explained that the origin of the mistake was a miscommunication between him and town administrator Adam Wilson during the storm. “If there was an error on anyone’s part, it was my fault,” he said. “I got caught by surprise when I got a call from Adam [Wilson], and during our conversation I had a bad connection. I understood Adam said they had decided to open it, and apparently he was asking, ‘Can we open it?’ He was asking if the shelter had food and water, and I said it was all set. [The Times] called me literally 30 seconds after I talked to Adam.”

Mr. Bollin said ultimately, a decision to open the old town hall would be up to town selectmen, with the emergency manager’s input.

“There definitely isn’t a clear line of how that’s supposed to happen,” he said. “I don’t think it is in many other towns. That’s why the Dukes County Emergency Managers Association is working on a regionalized shelter.”

Outside county lines

Although the County of Dukes County website declares that “Dukes County Emergency Management provides coordination between the towns during emergencies like hurricanes and winter storms,” that was not the case during Niko.

Despite the website’s declaration, according to county officials, it is up to the towns to ask county emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir for assistance.

“The county emergency management director is primarily for county employees and county properties,” Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said. “His secondary role is to be a helpful resource to town managers, but they have to come to him. Until all towns decide they want us involved, we don’t have the jurisdiction.”

Dukes County commissioners chairman David Holway echoed Ms. Thornton. “Services we provide should be requested by the towns,” he said. “If the towns get together and ask us for support, I think it’s something we should do. The problem is, we have limited financial resources, and we have the county advisory board that I believe is reluctant to expand the duties of the county, because at the end of the day, it costs the towns money. That’s why the services we provide should be requested by the towns.”

In an email to The Times, Mr. Cotnoir wrote, “My role in Emergency Management is extremely limited. I’m a collector of information and a coordinator of messages to and from the decision makers (the town EMDs); (to and from each other and to and from the the state). This is the way Massachusetts has it set up. Each town is autonomous and separate from each other town, and is the final and only decision maker for the members of their town and only their town … The county is a supporting agency and not a decision maker, except for county property and county personnel. It is not my place to assess or comment on Island emergency management, which by law rests under each individual town’s authority.”

State of disarray

Niko was not an anomaly. Across the board, town officials with whom The Times has spoken since the storm expressed concern and frustration at the lack of cohesion in regional emergency planning.

“The system is in disarray,” West Tisbury emergency management director (EMD) John Christensen said. “The structure is, each town has sovereignty, so each town can go its own way. There aren’t enough trained volunteers, by Red Cross standards, to open a shelter in each town. We’ve made some efforts to develop regional sheltering, but the messaging has not gotten out. I’m certain there’s awareness that there were loose ends during that storm.”

Mr. Christensen said that Dukes County is not recognized as a “sovereign entity,” and therefore does not qualify for support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. “I can get a grant for West Tisbury from time to time from FEMA, but the county can’t because it’s not recognized by the system as a sovereign entity.”

Mr. Christensen said some progress has been made recently by the Dukes County Emergency Managers Association (DCEMA), a group of EMDs and town and county officials who meet once a month.

“We recently came up with a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish a regional shelter,” he said. “The draft MOU also states that each town will commit $300 toward security costs at a regional shelter, and that Oak Bluffs School will be the designated regional shelter.”

However, Mr. Christensen said the powers of DCEMA are intrinsically limited, “because there is not a regional body, when the [Vineyard] emergency managers meet, it’s an association. It’s like the all-Island selectmen; they can vote on anything they want, but it doesn’t have any legal effect.”

Ultimately, Mr. Christensen believes the emergency management void cannot be filled by a committee of part-timers that meet once a month.

“The Island needs one person doing this full-time,” he said. “The people doing it now are either volunteering or get a token salary. You can’t have a fire chief fighting fires and setting up a shelter during a major event.”

Mr. Christensen said a full-time Island EMD could also apply for grant money and take a more proactive approach to emergencies. “I think a full-time person would pay for themselves,” he said. “We’re not planning. We’re reacting. We need to do better.”

Mr. Robinson agreed. “We absolutely need to tighten things up; we can certainly do better with communication during crisis situations,” he said. “The emergency managers are very dedicated people, but they’re understaffed. I think a full-time emergency manager is a good way to go. Having a single point of contact for the Island would certainly make a lot of sense.”

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole, who takes an active role in emergency planning, told The Times that he had discussed the substandard response to Niko with several other town officials.

“We should have read the situation. We should have opened a [regional] facility with a generator,” he said. “We could have used the reverse 911 [Code Red] system and social media, and reached out to the newspapers and let people know where they could get warm. The power was out a long time for some people.”

Citing another area of concern, Mr. Poole said he recently began asking the various Island Councils on Aging to update lists of people who need assistance during an emergency. “It’s the people who fall through the cracks who worry me the most,” he said.

Mr. Poole said the DCEMA MOU was at least a symbolic step. But he believes substantive improvement takes investing in a full-time, Island-wide EMD.

“We’re trying to do this on the backs of people who wear a bunch of hats or are volunteers, or both. Chuck Cotnoir at the county has done a ton of work over the years, pretty much for free. You need that steady hand, a paid professional, other than try to have fire chiefs, police officers, volunteers, pull together a plan, which they work very hard to accomplish, and it just doesn’t stay together,” he said. “There should be one person, paid a 12-month salary, in the range of $70,000. Divide that six ways, and it’s nothing. It would be easy to share costs across the Island, and it would give a whole bunch of progress. If we are not prepared for a sustained event, we’re going to wish we’d done more. It’s only a matter of time until we have our own Hurricane Sandy.”

Mr. Poole said a full-time professional could also develop an all-hazards plan that could cover the gamut, from ferry accident to Pilgrim Power Plant meltdown to bird flu pandemic.

And for a blizzard.

“The towns have to make some progress,” he said. “We’re on borrowed time.”