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Irene: Disaster plans kept bad from getting worse

Sunday, September 18, 2011
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Lock 8 in Rotterdam overflows with water on Monday, Aug. 29, during extensive flooding in the region as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Lock 8 in Rotterdam overflows with water on Monday, Aug. 29, during extensive flooding in the region as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.

— The flooding that struck Montgomery, Schenectady and Schoharie counties will go down among the worst in history and tested the ability of local and county governments to deal with a situation that threatened to escalate into calamity.

That most rose to the challenge with response and recovery efforts can be attributed to comprehensive emergency management plans — state-required management guidance for a disaster.

“The plan worked very well. There was no serious injury, no loss of life, people reacted as they should have,” said John Nuzback, fire coordinator for Schenectady County’s Department of Emergency Management.

All our photos

From the farms of Schoharie County to the streets of the Stockade, our photographers captured the flooding in dozens of photos you can see by clicking HERE

Nuzback, along with Mark LaViolette, emergency management director, and Kyle Rudolphsen, deputy director, coordinated Schenectady County’s response. The men spent countless hours manning the county’s emergency operations center and working with local emergency responders. Judy Warner, director of emergency management in Schoharie County, ran her county’s response. Montgomery County officials were not available for comment.

The county Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, or CEMP, seeks to save lives and reduce property damage by using risk reduction measures before a disaster happens, by putting in place responses during an actual incident and by providing short- and long-term recovery assistance.

As part of its risk assessment, Schenectady County rated a flood as a major threat, giving it a score of 232 on a scale up to 400. On the county’s chart, the highest threat is a severe storm with a rating of 304.

The county uses a state-approved hazard analysis scale to rate disasters. The scale ranges from the lowest threat, 137.2 for “radiological in transit,” to higher threats, like an act of terrorism, at 345.8. The highest score, 400, would be a catastrophe on the scale of a 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, when a chemical plant released poison gas, killing thousands.

Triple whammy

Nuzback said the flooding that began Aug. 28, followed by a tornado a few days later and then a second flooding incident, could be rated in the 300 range. “It was pretty bad,” he said.

No one could have predicted the level of flooding that occurred in the area, Nuzback said. In Rotterdam Junction, for example, the flooding hit the hamlet from an area never expected and the scope of flooding went beyond the projections of local officials.

Nuzback said the flooding, which also hit the historic Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady especially hard, was the type of emergency that planners envision as occurring in the event of a Gilboa Dam breach.

For Schoharie, in particular, the disaster is being termed that county’s version of Hurricane Katrina, regarding the devastation to the local economy and on public and private infrastructure, Warner said.

“We got so much water, about 18 to 19 inches in the Schoharie Creek watershed. That volume of water is two times what our normal floods would be,” she said. Flooding occurred along the 25 to 30 miles of the Schoharie Creek in the county, making it a countywide event.

The situation overwhelmed local response, prompting Schoharie County to assume full management of the crisis, Warner said. The county, in turn, asked the state for assistance, as her department of six people was itself quickly overwhelmed. “I contacted the state really quick, and they came out here with an incidence management team,” she said.

How to help

There are many ways to help the people, schools and organizations hurt by the floods. Here are some links and ideas:

She said the state brought in specialists from California and Ohio to help with logistics, finances and operations.

As part of their response to the crisis, both counties used rapid notification systems that relied on telephones to contact people. Schenectady County, for example, used a reverse 9-1-1 system to contact people in the Stockade about evacuating. Schoharie County also used emergency radio frequencies. Schenectady County did not use emergency radio frequencies for public notification.

Locals lead

The extent of a county’s involvement in a disaster is determined at the local level, emergency response officials said. “We are a home-rule state, and that means the primary responsibility for responding to emergencies rests with the local governments of towns, villages and cities,” Warner said.

Schenectady County, for example, has the responsibility to assist local governments in the event that a municipality has fully committed its resources and is still unable to manage a disaster, according to the Schenectady County CEMP. Similarly, the state of New York is obligated to provide assistance to Schenectady County after county resources have been exhausted.

The Rotterdam Junction Volunteer Fire Department was lead agency when flooding hit Rotterdam Junction, and the city of Schenectady was lead agency when flooding hit the Stockade.

Rotterdam Fire Chief Shawn Taylor called on the county immediately for assistance in helping to evacuate people from the hamlet. The county responded through its emergency operations center, dispatching rescue boats from fire departments from throughout the area. It also sent equipment and county personnel to help with disaster relief.

Joe Ryan, director of public works for Schenectady County, said the county emergency operations center coordinated where and when he should respond with county equipment. “You have to work with the EOC. You have to follow a chain of command. Otherwise, you don’t know where to go. Bottom up works,” he said.

At one point, the county had deployed all of its heavy equipment in assisting local municipalities, Ryan said. The city used its own resources to assist people in evacuating, and it also helped Rotterdam Junction with debris removal, said acting Mayor Gary McCarthy.

To be sure, each county experienced problems with its CEMPs. In Schoharie’s case, the biggest problem was the siting of its emergency operations center. “The only big flaw was our alternative 9-1-1 and EOC were in the flood zone. We had an alternative EOC, but the road to it was flooded out and we had to find another one,” Warner said.

“Up until Monday, we had to move the EOC six times. That is totally unheard of and is unacceptable,” she said. “When we should have been in the office answering phones and dealing with events, we were relocating the EOC. That was ludicrous.”

The other problem, she said, is making people aware that they should seek assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As of Wednesday, some 1,200 residents of Schoharie County had sought FEMA assistance, but the number who need it is much higher, Warner said.

A problem with Schenectady County CEMPs, officials said, was communications into the EOC — there was one line coming in.

Emergency management officials said they will sit down after the crisis is over and review their plans with the goal of making improvements for the next disaster.

 
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