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Flood responders prepare for next ‘Irene’

  • Local emergency response teams as well as National Guard members participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont. Seen here practicing swift river rescue skills below Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River on Wednesday. November 7, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Local emergency response teams as well as National Guard members participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont using Berkshire East as as command post on Wednesday. November 7, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz...

  • Local emergency response teams as well as National Guard members participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont. Two helicopters sit in a field near Berkshire East on Wednesday. November 7, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Local emergency response teams as well as National Guard members participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont using Berkshire East as as command post on Wednesday. November 7, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz...

  • Local emergency response teams and National Guard members practice swift river rescue skills below Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River on Wednesday. The teams participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont, using Berkshire East, below right, as as command post. Staff PHOTOS/PAUL FRANZ

  • Local emergency response teams as well as National Guard members participated in four days of civil-military drills in Charlemont. Seen here practicing swift river rescue skills below Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River complete with drone for aerial views. on Wednesday. November 7, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz



Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

CHARLEMONT – Imagine this scenario:

The entire Deerfield River watershed has flooded, damaging or destroying all bridges on roads and railways over the Deerfield River – including Routes 116, Routes 2 and 5, and Interstate 91. At least 700 people are reported missing and bodies have been seen in the river.

Hazardous materials from sewer flooding are reported; drinking water is compromised and boiling water is required. There is a wide power outage and crews are hampered until the flooding recedes. 

Communications towers are down or without power; Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield is inoperable, and there are only four shelters in the entire county.

How do you prepare for such a worst possible scenario?

About 334 responders from local towns, the National Guard, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and other state’s National Guards met this week in Charlemont, Northfield and other parts of the state for extensive rescue drilling for this and other such catastrophes. 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.

“The dam failed at 4 p.m. yesterday. So this morning’s exercise is what would be the start of the search-and-rescue mission,” Dennis Annear said of an emergency drill held Tuesday morning. Annear is team leader of the Northwest Massachusetts Incident Management Team and Charlemont’s interim fire chief. “There are eight rescue teams now in the river and in the forests. There are canine units and a group working on debris,” he added. “Theoretically, a couple of shelters are opening.”

On Wednesday, there were more water rescue exercises, search groups, a tactical rescue group, a hazmat group and an animal rescue strike force. Many Franklin County emergency management officials were also participating in the drills. For instance, Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Stahan served as deputy incident commander.  The participants all played roles that included  operations, logistics, planning, demobilization, air operations, communications and ground support. Many of the operations took place at the Berkshire East Mountain Resort, with some also occurring on the old Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.

A news release sent out by the Massachusetts National Guard called this week’s Vigilant Guard “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, but will pose no risk to the general public.”

Annear said this is the first time the Vigilant Guard exercises, hosted by the Massachusetts National Guard every five years, have been held in Charlemont. “This usually happens out east,” he said. “We did a tremendous amount of work to get this up here.”

Tropical Storm Irene did a tremendous amount of damage to Charlemont and other hilltowns in August 2011, the scars of it still evident in the scooped-out river banks and still-flooded lowland areas. But a large concern at the time was also a rumor that the Harriman Dam in Whitingham, Vt. might be breached – sending millions of gallons of water from the Harriman Reservoir downstream.

Failure of the 1912-built earthen dam is highly improbable, says Annear, but if it happened, the first wave of water would hit Charlemont in one hour and five minutes. Besides the Harriman Dam, the Sherman Dam in Rowe and the Fife Brook Dam are also directly north of Charlemont.

And any serious flooding in Charlemont would also affect the towns downstream.

Charlemont Selectboard member Marguerite Willis said the benefit of the week-long training is “immeasurable” for local town responders. “If we got the phone call (of dam failure) we’d only have an hour and five minutes,” she said. “It’s helping us to focus on what we have to do – which is sound those sirens, which we’re in the process of getting – and looking at our ‘frail’ list of people that we may have to evacuate. We just don’t have a lot of time, and we have to get them out of town.”

“One of the things we’ve talked about is maybe we should get them going on Route 2, up to Florida (Mass.), out of harm’s way,” Willis said. “Going east on Route 2 could be problematic. The water’s cascading all the way down. So after Charlemont, Buckland and Shelburne are getting it. And they’re going to be evacuated, because they’re going to get the same notice,” she said. “They just have a little more time than we do.”

“We don’t want more cars to come into town,” she continued. “Do we close Route 2? Make it one way? East or west? It’s important to look at every scenario, in planning for it.”

“One of the things we’ve learned from Irene,” said Willis, “is it’s important when you ask for the National Guard, you be very specific about what you need them for. You can’t say: ‘send them in and we’ll give them duties.’ Nope. We need to be very clear in what we need done. It’s going to take at least an hour for them to set up,” she added. “For at least an hour, we’re on our own.”

She and Annear said the town now has an “inundation map” that shows, in a worse-case scenario, which areas of town would be flooded, including homes closest to the Deerfield River. 

“The value of this exercise is for everybody to see the available resources for both the local and state (responders),” Annear said. “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.”