Calm after the storm
by Beth Sergent
MASON COUNTY — Though many lessons emerged from the storm system which blew through Mason County a month ago, two stood out - improving communication and organizing a volunteer base.
These lessons, and others, were discussed at Wednesday’s “After Action” meeting held at the Mason County 911 Center. Attendees at the meeting included emergency personnel, health department personnel, law enforcement, residents and representatives from the Mason County Local Emergency Planning Committee, West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Mason County Public Service District, county government and the municipal governments of Point Pleasant, Mason, Hartford and New Haven, to name a few.
Chuck Blake, director of Mason County Emergency Management, led the meeting which served as a roundtable discussion about what emergency planning procedures worked during the storm and what needed to be improved.
Communicating emergency announcements with the public was obviously an area which needed addressed. Due to the catastrophic nature of the storm, the normal routes to get information out failed when the massive power outage affected media outlets and the ability of the public to access these outlets. What was discovered is many people were getting their information though smart phones which are capable of accessing the Internet.
Sites like Facebook and other media websites were providing storm coverage as fast as they could get it posted. For this reason, the Mason County Office of Emergency Services (OES) is going to start its own Facebook page and Twitter accounts to provide the public with information, according to Matt Gregg of OES. Blake said it’s also possible a system using text messages could be established to get the word out to those who want to be on a call list for these types of emergencies.
However, not everyone has a cell phone and not every cell phone is a smart phone, not to mention, the cell service was erratic during the storm’s aftermath. For this reason, Blake suggested specific locations in towns (such as post offices, fire departments, town halls) be designated as a place to literally post the latest emergency information.
An emergency, automated telephone warning system is already in place in Mason County but a low number of calls were actually completed because several people lost phone service for their land line phones during the storm. This system attempted to make 144,184 calls but only 9,099 were deemed successful.
Randy Grinstead of Mason County PSD, also said better communication with American Electric Power is needed. This will help organizations like his know where generators need to be moved in terms of what areas are coming back on the grid next and which areas will be out for longer periods of time.
Organizing a volunteer base is another problem which needs solved. The more volunteers, the more services which can be provided to the public. Blake said there needs to be some kind of organized database of volunteers who are ready to be dispatched for these types of emergency events. He suggested working with the faith-based community and the LEPC to develop this base.
Tony Jones, a member of LEPC who also helped run the storm’s emergency shelter at Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School, said one thing he learned from the experience is Mason County is basically on their own for at least the first two days of a catastrophic, emergency event. This lesson seemed to go along with a comment from a representative from the state emergency management agency who said all emergency response begins at the local level. There were also at least a few complaints suggesting the American Red Cross had no adequate presence during the emergency and were late to the game with American Red Cross nurses showing up two days after the shelter closed.
The representative from the state emergency management agency also commended Mason County for the shelter, saying it was one of the best in the seven counties he served.
The shelter was one of many things which seemed to go right during the emergency. Blake commended the Mason County Schools System for providing the space at PPJ/SHS, as well as employing cooking and maintenance staff to help. Blake also said the school system emptied their freezers to provide meals to those who utilized the shelter - the busiest night had 90 people staying. Blake also mentioned Diana Riddle and her staff from the Mason County Health Department who helped with the shelter, providing costs and linens. Pleasant Valley Hospital also provided pillows, towels and linens and laundry services.
There were countless other stories of people pulling together and as Riddle pointed out even though the shelter provided services to those in need, it was a small number compared to the 27,000 total people in Mason County. Riddle said this proves neighbor was really helping neighbor and there were many more untold stories about people taking care of one another.
Blake commended these neighbors who were unsung heroes. He also singled out law enforcement, including those with the West Virginia State Police, Mason County Sheriff’s Office and Point Pleasant Police Department for showing up at the 911 center right after the storm to help. Many representatives from the cities around Mason County also spoke about their city employees and residents who helped keep a bad situation from getting worse.
Blake said Federal Emergency Management Agency workers will be sent out in the field to meet with government agencies and municipalities about recouping losses. This money was made available through President Barack Obama’s federal disaster declaration. It’s not known if federal money will be made available to individuals who sustained personal losses though Blake and his agency have attempted to gather this information to submit to the state which handles this application to the president.
Some storm facts:
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