Is your town or city prepared for hurricane season?
(Editor's note: Embargoed until week starting July 10.)
With forecasters predicting three to six major hurricanes in the Atlantic during an unusually intense storm season this year, Massachusetts emergency management officials are urging residents to take precautions.
Unsure how seriously to take that warning? Think back to August 1991, when Hurricane Bob unleashed 115-mph winds, 7 inches of rain and widespread power failures in the Bay State, causing $1 billion in damage across southern New England.
So Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) officials say they hope people will heed their advice to pack disaster supplies, plan how to communicate with family members in a crisis and learn about local emergency preparations – all well in advance of a major storm.
“Now is the time,” said Scott MacLeod, a MEMA spokesman. “The 12 hours just before landfall is not really the time to be thinking about pulling together a disaster supply kit or trying to figure out where your evacuation route is.”
While town and city emergency management directors described a host of plans to deal with a natural disaster and its aftermath, most said residents need to take steps to protect themselves.
“One of the things we try to stress is a certain amount of personal responsibility and accountability,” said Cambridge Deputy Fire Chief Gerry Mahoney.
Hurricane season is already here – it technically began June 1 – but the worst storms usually arrive here in August and September, according to MEMA.
In addition to major hurricanes, which bring winds of 111 mph or faster, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts 12 to 18 named storms (at least 39-mph winds) and six to 10 storms that could become less severe hurricanes (at least 74 mph) this season. The forecasts for all these categories are above average, NOAA said.
While coastal areas are vulnerable to storm surges and ocean flooding during hurricanes, inland areas are not safe havens. More people have died from hurricane-related flooding in inland areas over the last 30 years or so than along coastlines, according to MEMA.
Accordingly, MacLeod said his agency is urging people in all regions to pack a “go kit” stocked with essential supplies that could sustain their family for three to five days without power, and to have it ready in the event of a quick evacuation. Local emergency responders agreed.
“Obviously, preparation starts at home,” said Salem Fire Capt. Dennis Levasseur.
Kits should at least include canned and nonperishable foods, a gallon of water for each person per day, a two-week supply of any prescription medications, a portable radio, flashlights, spare batteries, first aid supplies and extra supplies for infants and pets, MEMA said.
The agency also is urging families to make a plan to communicate with each other in case they are separated during an emergency. MEMA recommends asking an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as a contact because shortly after a storm, calling outside a disaster area is often easier than calling within one. Families are encouraged to designate two meeting places – one within their town or city and a backup location in case the first is inaccessible.
People also should make lists, backed up with photos or videos, of their property and valuables that might be damaged or lost in a storm in case of an insurance claim, MacLeod said.
“Insurance is a big issue,” he said. “Now is a great time for people to be revisiting their insurance coverage to make sure hurricane-type damage would be covered.”
Property owners also should keep trees and shrubs trimmed in case of high winds, securely anchor sheds and other outbuildings, be ready to bring in outdoor items that could blow around and learn how to shut off their utilities safely if necessary.
Learning about local risks is also crucial, MacLeod said. People along the coast might be particularly susceptible to windblown debris, for example, and may want to install hurricane shutters, he said.
Those inland should find out if nearby bodies of water are prone to flooding, and if so, prepare to pump out basements and leave if necessary.
Each town and city in the state is required to have a plan to deal with local emergencies, as well as an emergency management director who is charged with developing and updating that plan. Directors, who are often the local police or fire chief, generally work with a group of other department heads and first responders to coordinate preparations.
A severe December 2008 ice storm and recent tornadoes in western and central Massachusetts highlighted the importance of preparing at the local level, emergency directors said.
“We need to have plans that build up from the everyday event to the big event to the bigger event to the big, big event,” said Littleton Fire Chief Stephen Carter.
Residents should be familiar with their local plans, said MacLeod, and can contact their local emergency management director with questions.
In part, plans deal with where emergency shelters will be if necessary, from making sure designated buildings are handicapped accessible and equipped with power generators to stockpiling cots, blankets and other supplies.
But local emergency directors cautioned that shelter locations will vary depending on the level of need and which parts of a town or city are damaged in a storm.
“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, the Juniper Hill School is my shelter,’ and that’s not the one that we stand up during an event,” said Framingham Deputy Police Chief Steven Trask.
Some towns and cities also have discussed setting up regional shelters if necessary in a large-scale emergency, Trask said.
Most communities would rely on volunteers to staff shelters and help attend to vulnerable residents. Brookline, for example, has 99 residents trained to support first responders and another 190 signed up for a medical reserve corps, said Police Officer Michael Raskin. Many towns and cities are looking for people willing to serve on such groups.
Emergency directors also sometimes plan evacuation routes, depending on where flooding or other hazards may arise. These are particularly important on the Cape, which has a regionwide evacuation plan, and residents and visitors should be familiar with it, MacLeod said.
Emergency directors said residents should monitor local media to make sure they are aware of an approaching hurricane. Weather forecasts should give people days of notice, but residents should continue to keep tabs on the storm as it gets closer, they said.
“Mother nature is very powerful,” Levasseur said in Salem. “When something like that is coming, people need to be informed.”
Most importantly, residents should be aware of how local authorities will get the word out on evacuations and other crucial information. Many towns and cities have special plans to notify nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other vulnerable populations directly.
Along with monitoring local media, people without land lines should be sure to sign up for automated message systems, emergency directors said. But not all towns have this technology.
“We would work to get the word out as best we can,” said Easton Fire Chief Thomas Stone. “We rely heavily on the major media outlets … to basically prepare the majority of the population so that they’re aware of it and hopefully they’re taking steps to get themselves prepared.”
(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or email@example.com.)