By Richard Whitby
The Daily Star
---- — “All emergencies are local in nature,” says Kevin Neary, Schoharie County’s acting emergency coordinator, echoing a quotation about politics made famous by the late House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.
“They start and end with local communities, so therefore, our philosophy, here in the county, is to develop an ability for communities to create their own plan and procedures on how they’ll respond in any given emergency situation,” Neary said last week. “It doesn’t have to be a flood.”
Nevertheless, flooding is the biggest natural threat for Schoharie, which was devastated by the deluge that tore through towns along Schoharie Creek after Hurricane Irene at the end of August 2011. Flooding also is the most imposing natural threat facing Otsego, Delaware and Chenango counties, all which were affected in some way by Irene, or Tropical Storm Lee two weeks later.
POST-STORM PLANNING CONTINUES
A year and a half later, the required “after-action” discussions and reports are completed, but the efforts to minimize nature’s wrath continue.
Schoharie hired a consultant, who produced a 92-page report last summer.
“They came up with nine major recommendations,” Neary said.
At the report’s heart were communications in several manifestations, ranging from working with the National Weather Service to improve rainfall reporting from the headwaters of Schoharie Creek to better coordination with the New York Power Authority and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to mitigate downstream flooding from the Blenheim-Gilboa power project. The progress in this area was on display in the run-up to Hurricane Sandy last fall, when the reservoirs were drawn down in advance of the storm.
“We were in constant contact both with DEP and with the power authority,” said Neary, who also is mayor of Richmondville.
But it’s on the local level where the county is still doing much of its work.
“We have provided the 16 towns and six villages with a model plan that they can use in the time of an emergency,” Neary said, adding that the county is helping these communities tailor the plans to suit their own conditions.
“It is the process of planning and not the plan that’s important,” he said. “So it’s process of sitting down with emergency services … and asking, ‘If this ever happens in our own community … how are we going to respond and who is going to be responsible to carry out these roles?’”
A key question in that process, he said, is: “How do we re-establish government?”
EACH INCIDENT CARRIES NEW LESSONS
Delaware County, which has been the subject of 21 federal disaster declarations since 1954, suffered effects from both of the 2011 storms.
Planners had spent days preparing for Irene, but so much rain fell so fast that “the flash flooding that we experienced in the town of Middletown was certainly something that, you may say, took us by surprise,” Steve Hood, deputy director/EMS coordinator for Delaware County, said.
“That was a learning experience,” he added. “When the water comes that hard that fast … even the weather service couldn’t have forecast that. It just happened.”
In Sidney, which has a history of floods, the post-Lee inundation developed more slowly, Hood said, and emergency plans were more effective.
But work to improve planning continues and, as with Schoharie, communications play a key role.
“We are currently building a multimillion-dollar radio system, public-safety radio system, in the county,” he said. “That was already in the works before Irene and Lee.”
Hood said his agency’s actions are coordinated with first responders as well.
“We’re pretty well in touch with all of them, and we interact with them on a daily basis,” he said. “But we also pull in other agencies, too, such as ... your law-enforcement agencies, your social services, health department.”
Volunteer fire departments are the “eyes and ears” of the system, Hood said.
COMMUNICATION KEY TO DISASTER RESPONSE
“The biggest thing that could help us is better communication all the way around, whether it be radio communication, whether it be cellular communication, written communication,” Hood said, expressing a sentiment echoed in other counties.
Neary said Schoharie is trying to find better ways to alert residents and visitors in the event of an emergency.
“We’re trying to develop a system that incorporates all different media, meaning that we have a rapid-notify system to call people,” he said. “We also are working on a system where people will be able to register with the county and receive a notification by either primary phone at their house or by text messaging.”
Otsego County, too, is trying to determine the best way to get word out about impending disasters, said Kevin Ritton, the county’s emergency services coordinator.
“The biggest change we’re trying to work though is our notifications to the public,” Ritton said. “As technology continues to change, we need to come up with better ways to notify the public. We’re working on a few things here in the county to enable us to better notify the public that resides here, as well as the tourists that are here for major portions of the year as well.”
CELLPHONES OFFER OPPORTUNITIES, OBSTACLES
One major obstacle for communications in Otsego County is the large number of visitors, Ritton said.
“Our biggest concern has been, obviously, keeping all the residents notified — we can work through those issues – but we have a huge population here for the Dreams Park, for Cooperstown, for different Hall of Fame events, for events in Oneonta and being able to broadcast to all those people who wouldn’t normally receive or expect to receive information from New York state or Otsego County.”
Complicating the issue, he said, was the growing number of residents whose only phone service is cellular, he said.
“We’re in the process of getting approvals for a reverse 911 system for the county, which would give us the ability to basically, from the office, send out a mass notification to all the phones within the county,” he said. “And the system that we’re looking at also has the added benefit of also being able to broadcast emergency messages off of the local cellphone towers.