Lessons learned in the year since Irene: communication, self-reliance
One year ago this week, dozens of Wilton roads were closed, basements were flooded, 80% of the town was without power, there were lines for ice and bottled water, and for the first time, shelters were open in Wilton and people were taking advantage of them.
Tropical Storm Irene hit on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
Town officials have spent much of the year since examining how response to the emergency could have been different — improved — and there are two major areas: communication and self-reliance
"If we found one weakness it was our ability to communicate with residents," Fire Chief Paul Milositz said earlier this month in an interview with The Bulletin. Chief Milositz, who is also the town's emergency management director, said town officials received considerable feedback from residents that their communication was "somewhat lacking."
In the months since the storms "we have been building our capability to communicate better," he said. "We will continue things that work."
One effective means of communication is the most low-tech, that of posting signs at places people frequent such as the supermarkets, library, and other popular spots. It is what Chief Milositz calls the "Stonehenge" method.
"We also took a heavy look at Facebook and Twitter as two means of getting information out electronically," he added. For Twitter, follow @WiltonEmergency. On Facebook it's Wilton Emergency Management.
Regular appeals are made to encourage people to sign up their cell phones — or any other phone for that matter — for the Code Red notification system.
That effort has borne fruit, he said, in that several hundred people have signed up, increasing the list by two-thirds. Those who signed up received calls from First Selectman Bill Brennan during the two recent emergency drills in which the town participated.
There is also the Wilton Urgent Notification E-mail List, a service provided through the Wilton Kiwanis Club. To subscribe visit wiltonkiwanis.org and click on the link.
The town website, wiltonct.org, runs an emergency crawl and a hotline number is implemented in times of crisis.
When an emergency strikes, large or small, the town's emergency services are focused on "life safety issues," the chief said. That includes assisting anyone in immediate peril and clearing the streets so emergency vehicles and traffic can pass.
"After that is the process of power restoration," he said. "The town has limited ability to direct restoration" beyond providing a list of priorities that includes nursing homes, assisted living facilities and grocery stores.
"We have to get the town running and not have large groups of frail people at risk," he said.
"People and residents need to be prepared to be self-sustaining for three to seven days," as far as food and water are concerned, he said.
"We have found residents have high expectations that may not be met due to the damage of the infrastructure.
"The expectations of residents need to be tempered," he continued, "because when there is a major disaster life safety comes first, then power restoration."
Other towns have the same priorities and there are not enough resources to go around.
Much criticism has been leveled at Connecticut Light & Power's response to the storms, and the utility has been trying to redeem its image.
"We have not been sitting still," utility spokesman Mitch Gross said when asked what steps CL&P has been taking to improve its emergency response.
"We've basically done wholesale revisions to our emergency response and preparedness plan and procedures in general so they cover significantly large events."
He said the utility has worked on improving communication with towns, a sentiment echoed by Chief Milositz who said the town has "a better relationship" with the utility's liaison. "We know who it is, we have their phone number," he said.
"The town liaison program has gone through a number of adjustments, increased training, implementation of software programs to deliver higher quality information to town officials," Mr. Gross said.
"Communication and coordination are the keys to all of this. We will be able to deliver that information to the towns and the customers.
"We're able to communicate with the towns and state agencies so we are all in step."
Improved communication extends to coordination with out-of-state crews that come to help during an emergency. There had been considerable criticism of outside crews having to waste time waiting for instructions.
"We are also working with the University of Connecticut on software that would give us enhanced weather forecasting capabilities so we would be better able to predict damage to our system. That's underway," Mr. Gross said. "We are also working with the Connecticut American Red Cross on a public education campaign. You will see us all over the state."
CL&P has been spotted in town this summer trimming trees, a project that will continue through the end of the year. Trees were the main cause of power outages during Irene, Mr. Gross said. The utility still, however, must get permission of property owners before trimming or cutting any trees. Whether the property is owned by individuals, the town, the state or someone else, that restriction has not changed.
Wilton's Community Emergency Response Team, known as CERT and called a "gem of a resource" by Chief Milositz, is also busy. The organization had a full membership training class on hurricane preparedness last week during which they reviewed lessons learned from last year's storms and discussed sheltering procedures, particularly as they apply to special needs clients.
"As part of the recent hurricane preparedness exercises run by the Town of Wilton and by the State of Connecticut, Wilton CERT developed a 72-, 48-, and 24-hour activation readiness checklist," operations officer T.G. Rawlins said in an email to The Bulletin.
"We will review home hurricane preparedness tips so that when the storms hits, we have personnel that are able and ready to respond to a CERT activation."
CERT has also invested in ham radio equipment since the 2011 storms. "In the event of a major communications outage, this ham equipment would allow our EOC to communicate with the Wilton emergency shelter, surrounding towns and with the state EOC," Mr. Rawlins said.
Town officials have also gotten considerable experience using the town's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which, Chief Milositz said, had never been opened prior to Irene. It is the room in police headquarters that is normally used as a training center.
In the EOC "we're all centrally located and can make decisions" on the spot, the chief said.
Officials who man the EOC include the first selectman, fire chief, police chief, public works director, social services director and parks and recreation director, representatives from Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps and CERT, and other support departments as needed such as health and building.
Stressing the need for a "culture of preparedness" does not mean the town will not help people in need, but government has limited resources in the beginning of an emergency, Chief Milositz said.
"We can get a lot of resources in short order, but that's a week," he said. "It takes time to put it all in place."