Lessons of the storm

On November 1, 2012, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Hurricane Sandy hit Somerville hard, but all you need to do is take a look at the devastation in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut to realize how lucky we were. Over and over again, TV meteorologists repeated that Sandy featured the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded along the Northeast coast, which means that it had tremendous energy as well as size and range. This was a huge storm that commanded us to take it very, very seriously.

Yet, in the end, only a handful of houses on Browning Road had to be evacuated (a falling tree damaged a gas line) and fewer than five percent of Somerville’s homes lost power for even a short time. Downed trees and tree limbs hit homes, businesses and cars in neighborhoods across the city: The property damage was significant and my heart goes out to those who suffered a loss. We had serious roof and water damage at the high school, and Sandy trimmed the top of the roof on the south side of city hall. Enough streets were blocked by debris, enough school power was out and there were enough questions about MBTA service that we ended up closing school for two days. There’s no doubt that Sandy exacted a major price from our city and its people, a price we will continue to pay for weeks and months to come.

But with few injuries and little in the way of crippling damage to most of our basic infrastructure – roads, utilities, communications systems – we have had incredible good fortune. And given the weather patterns we’ve seen in recent years, we should bear in mind that we will not always be this lucky.

Of course, as the scientist Louis Pasteur famously observed (and as generations of teachers have been drumming into us ever since), “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  In this case, fortune favors the prepared community: Our management of this storm was improved by some of the changes we’ve made in city services and communications systems in recent years, and by the way we’ve moved to take advantage of the rise of social media. And the lessons we take from our experience in this storm will make us prepared for future storms, storms we know are coming, because “Storms of the Century” are happening at an ever more frequent pace these days.

What did we do well this time?  For one thing, we improved our preparations: Starting on Thursday afternoon, our DPW crews began cutting down trees and trimming dead limbs that had been identified by the city’s arborist. Our workers used both high-tech vactor trucks and low-tech muscle power to clean out catch basins and storm drains.  Right through the weekend, we put sand bags around vulnerable municipal facilities with a past history of flooding, including the Public Safety Building and the Capuano Early Education Center. We pre-positioned portable pumps where they were most likely to be needed. We activated the emergency operations center that we built at the Public Safety Building back in 2007. If City Hall had suffered a catastrophic power outage, we would have been able to coordinate communications and management during the storm using back-up power, computers, telephone and radio equipment. We even sent out street sweeping crews as the winds began to strengthen, to make a final pass at clearing leaves from storm drains.

It was painstaking – and often backbreaking – labor, but it meant we were as ready as we could be.

Once Sandy arrived, the same police, fire and DPW crews that had worked so hard to prepare for the storm had to head out into the teeth of it. Most of the rest of us did as we were advised, hunkering down in our homes and trying to keep a full charge on our electronic devices. But they calmly coped with everything Sandy threw at them, and us. And as they worked, they had the added advantage of a powerful and interactive combination of communications tools to stay in touch with residents. Our 311 constituent service team did a first-rate job of taking reports and requests for service while dispensing information on how to prepare for the storm and obtain help when needed. Our social media coordinator was able to gather and share crucial information over Facebook and Twitter, which meant that residents ended up being our eyes and ears throughout the storm, often shaving crucial minutes off response times for police, fire and DPW personnel.

Our mass notification system gave us the ability to disseminate critical messages to the public via voice, text and email, and we were able to coordinate messages with our website and the city’s cable TV channels in real time. And as always, our police, fire, and DPW dispatchers persevered through the storm, keeping our responders headed toward every new challenge. One Somerville tweeter called it an effective game of “storm whack-a-mole.”

With the exception, perhaps, of the social media component (which has come on fast in just the past couple of years), we tend to take many of these capabilities for granted here in Somerville. We shouldn’t do that. For me, one of the more troubling aspects of Hurricane Sandy is that so few of the affected communities have combined a fully capable 311center with a mass notification system and a dedicated, professional social media presence. In offering informational and logistical support to our superb public safety and emergency response teams, Somerville’s communications system out-performs many larger, richer communities.

And credit also goes to our residents for sharing information, keeping an eye out for their neighbors and for following instructions with (generally) good humor and (mostly) good sense. Thank you.

Of course there’s plenty of room for improvement, and plenty of need as well. I have no doubt that we will be seeing more storms like this for years to come. And as bad as it was, Sandy let Somerville off pretty lightly. New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Connecticut got the worst of it this time. Our turn is coming. We’ll need our A-game.


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