Towns try to apply some lessons from what Irene put them through
Predictions that Hurricane Sandy could become a “serious event” for the Northeast, have mobilized officials in Franklin County towns clobbered by Tropical Storm Irene last year. They are also looking back at Irene, and using what they have learned.
Since last week and throughout the weekend, Boards of Selectmen in some Irene-damaged towns — especially in west county and Greenfield — have held emergency meetings with their highway departments, police, fire and emergency management directors, to make preparations.
“Basically, we’re doing things like charging batteries, making sure that (power) saws and pumps are working, and there is fuel in all the vehicles, said Greg Cox, Hawley’s fire chief and emergency management director.
Heath Selectman Sheila Litchfield said Friday that the town was getting ready to activate its emergency operations center at the Fire Department and, if needed, the town will set up a shelter at Community Hall.
“We’re taking this seriously,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we have the Board of Health to open an emergency shelter in Community Hall, if there needs to be a shelter,” she said.
“We’re encouraging the town nurse and the Triad folks to have a good list (of elders) available, if people need assistance,” said Litchfield.
She said the Irene-related road repairs have been completed — although not yet paid for. The town spent an estimated $950,000 for 47 Irene-related road repairs, road boss Michael Smith said in August. The town is still awaiting FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) reimbursement.
In Charlemont, Fire Chief Kenneth Hall said that the new public safety radios just arrived, but they have not yet been programmed and may not be ready for use this storm. The radios were ordered because the Highway Department radios couldn’t connect with the fire or ambulance vehicles during the storm.
During Irene, the Hawlemont Regional School couldn’t be used as an emergency shelter because it was flooded, so people evacuated from flooded regions were sheltered in the Federated Church of Charlemont.
The hilltop restaurant, Warfield House, has offered to shelter people there, if it’s needed, Hall said.
In Colrain, nearly all the Irene damage has been fixed, but it hasn’t yet received FEMA reimbursement. So Highway Superintendent Scott Sullivan and Town Coordinator Kevin Fox spent part of Thursday taking photographs of the repaired roads, as proof the work has been completed.
“Irene, for me, was a learning experience,” said Sullivan, who was the town’s former emergency management director until this year. “The documentation needs to be obtained for FEMA reimbursement. So I’ve gotten a better handle on how to document stuff. ... This (storm) could turn into really big paperwork.”
“The Irene work I’ve got left?” he added, “300 feet of guardrail and 30 pickets on a bridge and I’ll be done.”
Sullivan said the town doesn’t yet have an emergency phone notification system, although there are discussions about getting one. If the town really needed to use it, Colrain would have access to Vermont Yankee’s “Code Red” notification system, Sullivan said. But he doesn’t think it’s needed. During Irene, he noted, police officers went door-to-door at homes within the flood plain to tell residents to leave.
“This is a small community,” he said. “We usually stick together.”
Since Irene, Hawley has put an emergency notification system into place, thanks to a state Emergency Management Agency grant. Cox said the town will be sending out phone messages urging residents to be prepared — because so many parts of town had been cut off during Irene.
He noted that there are four flood zones in town — along the Chickley River, Clesson Brook, Hawks Brook and Mill Brook. The Chickley alone has had five major floods since 1987, he said.
“In a town with gradations that run from 500 feet to 2,000 feet, water runs really fast here,” said Cox.
Like many of the hilltowns wallopped by Irene, Hawley is still in the process of making infrastructure repairs.
“We’re not even done with (Irene) repairs, Cox said.
The town’s highway garage, near the Chickley River, was badly damaged by Irene. Cox said, its foundation has been repaired, the stream was put back into place and about half the garage was rebuilt. He said the town has spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on the garage repairs, which it’s still paying for.
“I hope it stays there,” Cox said of the garage, “we have a fire truck in there again.”
On Thursday, the state Department of Emergency Management Agency alerted emergency management directors that the storm was a “serious event.” It also scheduled a conference call for Friday with emergency responders.
During Irene, some residents were stranded by cut-off roads and one woman with a medical emergency had to be flown to a hospital by helicopter because her home could not be reached by foot.
Cox said he hopes any resident with serious medical conditions who lives in a remote, inaccessible location would consider waiting out the storm in a safer setting.
When asked if the town has a plan in place for possible evacuations, Cox replied, “It’s really hit and miss here.” In the past, only a few evacuations have been necessary. A few times, residents evacuated from the Chickley River and Clesson Brook have been put up in a lodge, that had some rooms available.
During the ice storm of 2008, he said, two Army soldiers that had been stationed in Iraq were stranded in a vehicle in Hawley. They ended up sleeping in the fire station, said Cox.
“One slept on a pool table. The other slept on pillows on the floor,” he said. “One guy told me: ‘If they’re not shooting at you, you can sleep anywhere.’”
Buckland selectmen also met in an emergency meeting Thursday and were scheduled for another emergency meeting with Shelburne officials on Saturday morning.
The roads surrounding Clesson Brook in Buckland were badly damaged by Irene and are scheduled for repairs within the next few weeks. When asked if those roads can withstand another heavy rainfall storm, Town Administrator Andrea Llamas said the roads have been filled in, although they are not yet paved, and that collapsed areas of the stream bank were repaired since Irene.
“Although the roads aren’t paved, they are filled — they’re not broken,” she said “We’re hoping this storm, although severe, won’t be the same (as Irene).”
Ashfield is tentatively planning to open its emergency operations center Sunday night at the Fire Station. During Irene, Sanderson Academy was used as an emergency shelter for residents evacuated from Bronson Avenue.
Executive Administrator Mary Fitz-Gibbon said Sanderson will again be used as a shelter, if needed. However, the school has a “no pets” policy in place, so those seeking shelter will not be able to bring pets to the school this time.
To lessen the risk of flooding, the Ashfield Lake dam was to be opened for a 75 percent release on Saturday, to draw down the water level.
Marlo Warner, Greenfield’s Department of Public Works field superintendent, said there’s not a lot the town can do to get ready for the impending storm, except to make sure equipment is working and employees are ready.
He said they will be on call throughout the storm.
Warner, who was covering for an ill DPW Director Sandra Shields on Friday, said after Irene pummeled parts of Greenfield and flooded its wastewater treatment plant in August 2011, the town made some improvements to the plant, including installing doors that will hold back 142.5 feet of water, instead of 140 feet.
He said treatment plant employees are moving “key equipment” to upper levels of the building — just in case.
Warner said the pumping station bridge, which was knocked off one of its abutments during Irene and is awaiting restoration, could sustain more damage if the storm is bad enough.
“There’s nothing we can do but hope for the best,” Warner said.
He said the DPW is making sure all vehicles are working and filled with fuel and that all equipment is in working condition.
“Our tree crews are sharpening their tools,” he said.
“There’s just not a lot you can do about flooding and that’s what it seems could happen with a storm like this one,” said Warner.
He said the work will really begin after the storm, when the town accesses how much damage has been done and starts to clean up, if that’s what becomes necessary.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes,” he said.
Warner said the town does have some sandbags and will watch the “usual suspects,” including the Green River Swimming and Recreation Area, Riverside Drive and Deerfield Street, a little more closely. Those were areas severely flooded and damaged during Irene.
Warner said the DPW, as it watches those areas, will post signs if it looks like there will be any types of problems there.
“That’s all we can do,” he said. “We all have a little anxiety going into this, but that’s all we can do.”
Warner said the town will also be watching for power outages and downed trees and limbs.
Shields said in a recent interview that repairs to the dam at the pumping station, which was also damaged during Irene, had been completed.
Warner said the town is hoping it is not damaged again.
The total cost of damage to the town due to Irene was $5.3 to $5.5 million.
Shields said recently that the town was still waiting for some of the money that the federal government plans to reimburse Greenfield.
In Deerfield, after meeting for four hours with town highway crews on Friday, Deerfield Selectmen’s Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness said much will depend on exactly where the storm is positioned and whether flooding occurs.
Because of soil washed away by Hurricane Irene last August, she said, “What’s concerning to us is that our riparian buffers are 10 to 12 feet below what the level of the soil pre-Irene. We’re much more vulnerable. If we have a large rainfall, coupled with he work that’s been done that’s armored the river, which would increase velocity, we’re set up to have considerable damage.”
If the rainfall is heavy in the Deerfield River watershed and the Connecticut River is also affected, she fears, “The Deerfield will slam into the Connecticut, and it will spread out, so we’d have a much bigger impact from the height of the water.”
Ness said TransCanada Corp. has already begun to draw down the level of water in Harriman Reservoir in Whitingham, Vt., to limit flooding along the Deerfield River.
But she acknowledged that at this point, nobody knows exactly what to expect, so all precautions are being taken, including sandbagging of the Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, where Hurricane Irene flooding came within a foot below the door.
“The further south the storm stays, the better for us,” she said, “because we’d get the wind and rain, but we wouldn’t get the inundation.”