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Being prepared for the worst as our climate changes


Thursday, November 15, 2018

So many of our rural towns are built on rivers. Our forebearers chose those locations along the Millers, Deerfield and Connecticut rivers and their smaller tributaries because they offered the infrastructure of the day: drinking water, food, irrigation, waste disposal, power.

No doubt they had their share of flooding over the years, but today we’ve built up our cities and towns to the point that flooding costs much more damage to homes, business, roads and bridges. If the majority of the world’s climate scientists are to be believed, global warming is increasing the odds of major weather events, which in our neck of the woods, means fierce rain, snow and wind storms with the potential to bring 100-year floods far more frequently.

Therefore, we are gratified to see that our state emergency preparedness agencies, local emergency responders and the National Guard are planning for the worst, as we all hope for the best.

They imagine possibilities like the entire Deerfield River watershed flooding, damaging or destroying all bridges, roads and railways along the Deerfield River — including Route 116, Route 2, Routes 5 and Interstate 91.

How do you prepare for such a catastrophe?

About 334 responders from local towns, the National Guard, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and other state’s National Guards met recently in Charlemont, Northfield and other parts of the state to do just that, as the participated in extensive rescue drills. It was part of a statewide Vigilant Guard training program involving 46 state, local and federal agencies, held simultaneously in five different locations throughout Massachusetts.

Dennis Annear, a former Orange fire official who is team leader of the Northwest Massachusetts Incident Management Team, said the drill involved in part eight rescue teams that practiced river search and rescue in the Deerfield River and in the area’s forests. There were canine teams, search groups, a tactical rescue group, a hazmat group and an animal rescue strike force. Many of the region’s emergency management officials were also participating in the drills. For instance, Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan served as deputy incident commander. The participants all played roles that included operations, logistics, planning, demobilization, air operations, communications and ground support.

Massachusetts National Guard called the weeklong Vigilant Guard exercise “the largest homeland security training exercise ever conducted in the commonwealth.”

“The citizens of Massachusetts depend on state and federal agencies to work together to prevent, protect, respond and recover from disasters,” said Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe of the state National Guard. “Throughout the week-long exercise, the scenarios will be as realistic as possible for those involved in the training.”

It’s easy to dismiss at all this time and money spent on readiness for what some might feel can never happen here.

But we saw the power of Mother Nature in a time of climate change when Tropical Storm Irene did a tremendous amount of damage to Charlemont and other Franklin County hilltowns in August 2011, the scars of it still evident in the scooped-out river banks and still-flooded lowland areas.

And last winter in Athol, freakish fluctuating temperatures caused ice to jam the Millers River, creating flooding concerns, threatening the Exchange Street bridge and forcing the evacuation of 26 apartments at the Morton Meadows elderly housing complex, which is right next to the river.

“The value of this exercise is for everybody to see the available resources for both the local and state (responders),” Annear said of Vigilant Guard. “It’s also a relationship-building exercise. If there’s a real emergency, it makes it so much easier for everybody to see what resources are available to get the job done.”

When we see events like these that cannot be stopped, we appreciate the value of doing what we can to be ready for the aftermath.

Such on-the-ground (and in the water) drills and tabletop exercises are of immeasurable benefit for local town responders, on whom we may rely some day to come to our rescue. We grateful they are investing the time needed to be prepared.