Emergency officials prepare for busy season
Although the Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1, recent history has shown the more extreme storms occur from August through October. That’s why Jamestowners may have recently found an emergency checklist in their mailbox.
Last year, Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast in late October. In 2011, although downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Rhode Island, Hurricane Irene rolled through the Ocean State on Aug. 28. Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. And Hurricane Andrew, which had a reported wind gust of 177 mph, devastated South Florida on Aug. 24, 1992.
Based on these storms and many others, the time for hurricane preparation is at hand.
According to Police Chief Edward Mello, the town is well prepared for a major storm. However, he cautioned individuals to take responsibility for their own safety as well. Mello said last year the town’s emergency management plan was changed to include hurricanes. The plan involves all local stakeholders: public works, finance, police and fire. The plan outlines the responsibilities of each department during an emergency – it has already come into play a couple of times since its adoption. Still, no plan can ever be perfect.
“We continue to make modifications and revisions to that plan as we move forward based on lessons learned,” Mello said.
The Police Department also relies on the emergency notification system to keep the public informed. The reverse-calling system was installed in July 2012 and every resident with a landline is notified within minutes of an emergency. People can also be notified on their cell phones – both calls and texts – if they register their mobile number. (Mello says community members can register on the town’s website.)
“We continue to encourage people to register in order to receive the most up-to-date information,” he said.
According to Mello, planning for the emergency response begins a week from the arrival of the predicted storm. First, the various de- partment heads meet with Rhode Island emergency officials to see what assistance the state and National Guard can offer.
After available aid is determined, a plan can be drafted. The Police Department prepares by making sure all vehicles are well maintained and fueled up. Generators and communications are inspected, and the workforce is ramped up.
“We make sure that we have adequate staff because we see a dramatic increase in the number of calls,” Mello said.
It’s the same for the Fire and Public Works departments, he added.
In the days leading up to the storm, volunteers are contacted to ensure Jamestown’s shelter is fully staffed. National Grid is also contacted to determine what its course of action is going to be – is it going to have adequate resources and assets for Jamestown?
In the aftermath of a storm, federal assistance is channeled through the state Emergency Management Agency. Because help on that scale can come later rather than sooner, residents are encouraged to have 72 hours worth of critical supplies on hand prior to a storm. The mass mailing sent to all islanders two weeks ago included a 72-hour checklist. The list includes items like water, readyto eat food, flashlights, batteries, prescriptions, duct tape and plastic sheeting.
The most recent test of the town’s response plan came during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Mello said he was satisfied from the town’s response, both staff and volunteers. However, he expressed concern that things can get a lot worse than Sandy, which did most of its damage in New Jersey and New York.
“I want to make sure that people understand there is potential for a much more serious impact than what we have experienced in the recent past,” Mello said.
Mello advised residents to go through the checklist and make sure each household has enough supplies to be on its own for 72 hours. He said it’s also important to stay informed through the town’s communication system. At-risk residents like the elderly and disabled are advised to visit the state Health Department’s website and register so police are aware of them in case there’s a need to evacuate.
“We rely on that list heavily,” he said, “to make sure that we’re going out and checking on those residents.”
Finally, Mello said, if an evacuation order is given, it is important for residents to comply and head to the shelter. This will help ensure the safety of every resident and at the same time reduce the demand for services.
Mello said he’s confident an evacuation of the entire island could be successfully accomplished given enough notice. Evacuations of the island’s lowlying areas are much more likely, however.
Jamestown’s shelter is located in the multipurpose room in the basement of Melrose School. It was moved there from Lawn School because the Melrose shelter is below ground, while the Lawn shelter, although windowless, is on the first floor.
According to former police chief and current Town Councilor Tom Tighe, who directs the shelter effort locally, when the call comes from the Red Cross to open the shelter, volunteers are notified. The workers set up cots on one side of the room, while an area to prepare and serve food is assembled on the other side.
Some of the shelter supplies come from the Red Cross, but there is also an agreement in place so the town can purchase supplies from McQuade’s Marketplace in anticipation of a storm.
During Hurricane Sandy, more than 100 people came to the shelter. Tighe said there is room for more than twice that many. While some people came and left, others spent the night. Several years ago, Tighe received a state grant to purchase a large enough generator to power the entire school, so the shelter is always open when it needs to be.
Although Lawn School no longer shelters residents during a hurricane, it remains useful in an emergency. The gym at Lawn School is used to shelter animals and there is staff on hand to take care of the pets.
“In any type of emergency we will have the shelter open,” Tighe said. “If people have questions or need help, they should contact the police and they will reach out and get them to the shelter for us.”