Frozen in time
We all remember those frigid weeks five years ago, but does that mean we’re better prepared?
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It was Dec. 11, 2008, and the region was covered in ice. Trees were down. Power was out. Residents were lined up outside the few establishments still open, trying to get supplies. People were investing in “paper generators,” paying for generators in advance and turning in their receipts when the generators were available. Line and road crews were called in from all over the country and Canada to deal with repairing power lines and clearing roads covered in downed trees and sheets of ice. It was a disaster that has stuck in the memory of the region.
Which may be a good thing, as far as local emergency planning goes, noted Peterborough Public Works Director Rodney Bartlett. Every time the town reviews its emergency plan, the ice storm and its response comes up and is reviewed. The ice storm was the first test for several things that until that point had only been ideas on paper. And the town, he says, is now in a better position to respond, should a similar disaster put the region in such a position again.
“I think we’re in a better place, now,” said Bartlett. “Five years is a recent memory. It’s only when you go out 10 to 15 years, that historic knowledge leaves off. The management team is in a good place. It’s when you get comfortable and you don’t think a big disaster is going to come that the response gets jeopardized.”
American Red Cross
The ice storm passed over the city of Keene completely. But that didn’t mean the city’s chapter of the Red Cross wasn’t busy. It’s various volunteers were responding to over 1,000 hotline calls from people seeking emergency sheltering. On Friday, Dec. 12, the day after the storm hit, nine shelters had already been opened in the state by 11:30 a.m. By the end of the day, it would be 10 shelters and 4 warming centers that were managed by Red Cross or community partners with Red Cross assistance. There, residents driven out of their homes in search of heat or food were given three meals a day and health care. By Dec. 13, the storm had officially become a Disaster Relief Operation, and yet another shelter was opened.
At the height of the disaster, about 1,300 New Hampshire residents were in Red Cross or community shelters. Three days after the storm, more than 100,000 people in New Hampshire were without power, and after five, that number was still as high as 87,000. And shelters were still open across the state until Dec. 23.
Since the storm, said Kayleigh Robertson, the communications/external relations director for American Red Cross, New Hampshire, the organizations has put a lot more focus in making sure that shelter set up will move more smoothly in the future. The Red Cross began a process of regional shelter agreements with towns throughout the region. The point is to have an agreement in place so that should the Red Cross need to set up a shelter, one can be set up as quickly as possible.
The Red Cross has also been a key player in starting a conversation in towns about their emergency management plans, said Robertson. They have distributed literature and worked with towns on the best assets for a possible shelter and advising in how to communicate with residents. Also, the Red Cross stresses that each town should have an updated safety plan, and communicate to their residents that the plan is available.
The ice storm of 2008 wasn’t like anything emergency management officials had dealt with before, noted Jim Hicks, of the Greater Peterborough All Health Hazard Region 14 and Emergency Management Director for New Ipswich.
“Nobody was prepared for this storm. Not on the local level or the state level. I got up that morning and this town was in total devastation. I had to have people come with chainsaws to remove trees just to get up the road.”
Peterborough Public Works Director Rodney Bartlett agreed that the level of disaster brought by the storm was unprecedented. The town had listed possible locations for an emergency shelter, but the storm was the first time in his memory it had ever been used. The majority of downtown Peterborough was without power and communications for five days. And it was the loss of communication that really hurt the town, because it meant no outside resources could be contacted for aid.
In the five years since the storm, the town has made some steps to correct the gaps in emergency response that the storm made clear. The Town House in Peterborough now has a generator. Cable wires — underground ones — run from the Town House to the Police Department and Fire Department, so communications can stay open in case of any future disaster. In fact, many of the focus areas of improvement have to do with communications.
“We’ve made a lot of steps with communications, both with Public Service of New Hampshire and Comcast. [In 2008] people outside of our area were responding to email. When we finally got power back, I had 23 emails from Public Service updating progress. Except we didn’t have Internet.” Since Peterborough wasn’t replying requesting assistance, none of the outside agencies were aware of how dire things were here. And the ice storm was a very regional event, with nearby Keene getting rain, instead of ice.
In addition to improving communications with PSNH, the town has also added a Nixle system, which can send updates in times of disaster to the cell phones of residents who sign up for the service. In 2008, some cell phone services were also down, but moving forward, it will be a good alert tool to keep residents apprised of where they can get supplies and shelter in a similar event.
New Ipswich will be implementing a similar system, called Code Red, by Jan. 1, according to Hicks.
“One of the biggest problems we had was getting information about where to get food and water out to the residents. This will help some of them,” he said of Code Red.
Unlike Peterborough, New Ipswich’s cell phone reception during the 2008 ice storm was provided by a U.S. Cellular tower, which remained active throughout the storm, allowing for cell phone communication, so Code Red would have been useful during that situation. Since New Ipswich residents rely on local wells for water, many did not have water while electricity was out, but the town had received water supplies within days of the storm. At the time, emergency management personnel posted notices at the gas station, post office and other local hot spots, in hopes of getting the word out. This will be an easier system, said Hicks, when Code Red is in place. That’s only the latest in communications updates New Ipswich has made, though, he added.
The town now has its own frequency for communication between town officials, which is run out of the town office complex, meaning they are not reliant on outside dispatchers for communications.
Rickard Donovan, the director of public and life safety in Rindge, said that the town has upgraded the generators at the fire station since the ice storm. In 2008, the station didn’t have a generator adequate to power the entire facility. But most of the updates the town has made are related to the internal processes for reporting, he noted. The town’s record keeping is now more in line with state and federal guidelines, and more photographs are taken during cleanup to make applying for state or federal aid easier.
The other piece for Rindge, like other towns, Donovan said, was improving communications between the town and the residents. The town has purchased message boards signs, which can be put up on Route 119 and 202 to inform the population during emergencies. The town’s also reached an agreement with the Franklin Pierce radio station to broadcast announcements as needed.
Monadnock Community Hospital
While patients and staff were struggling on the roads to get there, hospital operations continued essentially without a hitch, said Monadnock Director of Facility Operations Tom Humphrey. Employees stayed over at the hospital to fill the gaps in staffing, and the town made clearing the roads to the hospital a priority. The hospital had been proactive in its planning for major weather events, and had enough generator power to power 100 percent of the complex, Humphrey said. The hospital keeps a reserve of fuel on site. So during the five days that MCH was without external sources of power, the hospital had plenty of electricity and water.
MCH also didn’t suffer from many of the communication issues that the rest of Peterborough was experiencing, as they had radio communication available.
During events like the ice storm, or even just major medical events such as a large fire or motor vehicle pile up, the hospital activates its Emergency Command Center, and activates its emergency operations system. It operates much like the municipal protocol during major emergencies, said Humphrey.
“These are all things that we thought about proactively, and test regularly,” said Humphrey. “And it worked very well during that time.
For five days, Roy’s Market in Peterborough was without power, the same as everyone else in the downtown. But where many other stores shut down, Roy’s handed out flashlights to employees who walked customers through the dark store to help them pick out items. For those that didn’t have cash, employees took down credit card numbers to be charged after the power was restored. Some days they could only stay open five or six hours, as employees battled the cold, but the store was a resource during a time resources were scarce.
Peter Robinson, the owner of Roy’s Market, recalled the lines out the door while the market was open. The extreme cold had the temperature in the store below 38 degrees — the same temperature for the store’s coolers, so that extended the life of many of their shelf products, but many other items had to be thrown out for safety. It likely cost more to stay open those hours during the outage, said Robinson, but there was a community obligation he felt in staying open.
Afterwards, Robinson did consider whether or not to invest in a generator, but said the cost, when weighed against the frequency of use, was much too high. Most outage events don’t last longer than 24 hours, and the coolers retain their temperature long enough for that not to be an issue. The only thing that would change if there was a similar event now, he said, would be that now Little Roy’s has the ability to cook, so they would offer hot meals as well.
Another local store had that ability back in 2008: The Dublin General Store , which hosted community suppers during the worst of the storm.
Tips for the individual
With the ice storm fresh in the region’s collective memory, towns are taking steps to make sure that should a similar event happen, the population is better prepared to respond. But people should take steps to make sure they are also able to make it through unanticipated or catastrophic weather events.
New Ipswich Emergency Management Director Jim Hicks noted that state and federal aid can provide food and water during emergencies — but the process is not instantaneous. Residents should keep at least three to four days worth of food and water in their homes at all times to get them through until state aid should arrive. It’s also helpful to keep an emergency stock of batteries and flashlights in case of power outages. The Red Cross recommends storing three gallons of water per day, per family member, for anticipated power outages.
If your town participates in a program such as Nixle, Code Red or Reverse 911 — various services which send a prerecorded message or text to a database of registered numbers during emergencies — residents should be proactive in making sure they are registered, particularly if they exclusively use an unlisted number, cell phone or Internet phone services, such as Skype. Check town websites or call town offices to do so.
Kayleigh Robertson of the American Red Cross advised residents create an individual emergency action plan for their family, so that all members know what to do should a disaster strike, and how they plan to communicate. Residents should also take on the responsibility of knowing where the potential shelters are in town, and where information will be posted if your town does not have a emergency phone system, or in the event phone lines are down, she said.
For more information on how to properly prepare for anticipated disasters, and create an emergency kit for unanticipated disasters, visit www.redcross.org/prepare for tips and a preparedness checklist.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.