In the days after the Otsquago Creek rose from its banks and raced through the streets of Fort Plain, a host of emergency personnel descended on the village.
A shelter was opened, food distributed. As disasters go, Red Cross response manager Michael Raphael said, Fort Plain’s June flooding was handled pretty well.
“It’s really simple to handle small disasters,” he said, “but what about bigger ones? What if we have to open 60 shelters?”
Such an instance of multistate carnage was the subject of a Montgomery County community resiliency forum held Friday afternoon in a Hamilton Fulton Montgomery BOCES conference room.
With more and more natural disasters hitting New York state and the nation, state Sen. Cecelia Tkaczyk and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara convened the forum as a way to improve emergency preparedness and recovery in Montgomery County.
“We need to fill in the gaps in our recovery,” Santabarbara said.
While Raphael, who serves on the established Fulton-Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee, said Fort Plain’s disaster response was executed well, he predicted recovery gaps would likely show themselves in a larger weather event.
If a disaster covered multiple states, communities in Montgomery County wouldn’t get the same level of agency attention. Should something like Tropical Storm Irene hit the area again, he said recovery would progress faster if community members stood ready, each with a specific predetermined task in mind.
Basically, Raphael hopes to train communities to take care of themselves in the event of a disaster too large for the Red Cross, FEMA or any other single agency to handle.
“This is the new reality,” he said.
Embracing that reality could actually improve the collective sanity of area communities. Professor James Halpern of the Institute of Disaster and Mental Health at SUNY-New Paltz said: “A natural disaster can be deeply traumatic.”
For those in an affected community, a mental recovery can be helped along by something as simple as a caring friend, he said, or a feeling of safety.
Even better, Halpern said, trauma can be prevented through preparedness and involvement. When people have a job to do, they cease to feel like victims. It’s a healthier state of mind.
The Rev. Neal Longe of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Amsterdam is a perfect example. Recently an affordable housing apartment complex near St. Ann’s lost power. The Red Cross reached out to the church, asking to borrow the space to shelter displaced residents. In the process, Longe and a half-dozen parishioners were trained in the specifics of running a shelter.
“Now if we get the call, we can open a shelter,” Longe said, “and we’re trained to run it for 24 hours until the Red Cross brings supplies.”
A similar arrangement, he said, could be reached with other organizations and private citizens to bring food and other services to disaster scenes.
Generally, the forum served as a place for more than a hundred local officials, emergency personnel and volunteer organizers to mingle, so next time a big flood hits the Mohawk Valley, they’ll already know each other.
“We don’t want to be exchanging business card at the disaster,” said state voluntary agency liaison Matt Burns.
With hurricane season a few months away, Raphael hopes the networking will lead to some sort of countywide committee and volunteer training structure.
Luckily, there’s already a foundation to work from. The Fulton-Montgomery Long Term Recovery Committee was formed after Tropical Storm Irene in preparation for the next disaster. It swung into action in Fort Plain last year.
“We all know each other,” said committee member Andy McPherson, “Ever since Irene. We sort of know what to do.”