When hurricanes strike

The Great Hurricane of 1938 battered New England beyond recognition and to this day holds the record for the worst natural disaster in Connecticut history, but what would happen if a similar calamity were to strike today?

How would the town react? What kind of aid would Greenwich be able to get from the state and from the federal government? How would the town’s communications hold up and how would the various town departments and emergency services branches be able to work together? After all, lives could well be at stake should such a disaster occur.

The answers to those questions and more could be found at the two-day hurricane simulation involving state and local officials which took place at the town’s Emergency Operations Center earlier this week. This simulation, which was designed to test government response and potentially iron out any kinks in emergency management plans, took place throughout the state over the course of the last week and on Monday and Tuesday it was Greenwich’s turn.

According to First Selectman Peter Tesei, the central goal of the state program was to strengthen the abilities of and secure clear communication “between the various entities who [would] have key responsibilities” relating to the preparation, confrontation and aftermath of a category three hurricane.

Participants in the simulation included personnel from the local police, firefighters, Greenwich Emergency Medical Service (GEMS), the Department of Public Works, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Health, Red Cross and Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P).

A key goal of the two-day simulation was to “allow the players to meet with their corresponding peers to review a set of circumstances and address them,” Mr. Tesei said.

On day one of the simulation, participants focused on preparing for a hurricane to strike. They engaged in a scenario in which they were only eight hours from the landfall of the storm at the conclusion of the day’s exercises, Mr. Tesei explained.

On the second day, a joint exercise in which a large elm tree was dropped in Bruce Park was conducted. The Department of Parks and Recreation’s trees division and Connecticut Light & Power were present to practice coordinating their efforts, should a tree fall and bring electric wires down with it during a major storm. The focus of the day was on efficiently clearing roads, ensuring safe travel, practicing communication between the two entities and familiarizing newer personnel with standard protocol.

Although the simulation program is practiced in most of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, it may be even more crucial for coastal towns such as Greenwich to complete the exercises due to their proximity to the ocean, Mr. Tesei said.

In the hurricane of 1938, “any vegetation here was fairly crippled” and it is critical that emergency personnel be prepared to prevent similar damages from happening again, he said. “We learn from what we go through. We learn something each time.”

The town has practiced hurricane preparedness in the past, but the simulation was on a much bigger scale, Mr. Tesei explained. “We’re happy to be participating.”

Greenwich Police Department Capt. Pamela Gustovich agreed, saying the simulation has been “a great learning experience.” The opportunity to “put names with faces,” build professional relationships and establish a “team effort” have been the highlights of the storm simulation, she said.

The town has had recent experience with strong storms. Last year Tropical Storm Irene touched down in Greenwich, forcing trees to fall and roads to have to be closed. But that storm had weakened from its peak hurricane strength by the time it hit Greenwich. Then there was the March 2010 nor’easter that knocked out power throughout town, in some cases for more than a week, and caused the death of one resident. The simulated hurricane was designed to be something even more powerful.

The police department’s central duty in the event of a natural disaster is to maintain civil order and help identify areas that local utilities need access to, Capt. Gustovich explained. However, the simulation has helped her learn what role other town departments and utilities play in the process, which is not something police are usually able to observe.

According to Capt. Gustovich, an overview of the entire two-day process will be conducted next month. Reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the town’s emergency response system will be critical to improving the town’s preparedness for natural disasters, she said.

Even larger-scale utilities such as CL&P are able to learn from hurricane simulations, according to Mitch Gross, a spokesman for the company.

Although CL&P’s job is “to keep the lights on,” natural disaster simulations are vital so that “everyone understands each others’ role,” Mr. Gross said. “In an event of this magnitude, everyone should be able to mobilize their resources.”

Having faced harsh criticism for past failures in the aftermath of major storms, Mr. Gross said it does CL&P no good to “look in the rearview mirror.” While there is still work to be done, the company has executed “non-stop work on our processes, our procedures and some of the tools and technology we now have.”

CL&P is better prepared after hurricane simulations like the one in town, he added, but “hopes it never comes to that point. A category three [hurricane] would be catastrophic.”

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