Ready... or not?
A look into Connecticut's hurricane preparedness
By Jenelle Cadigan
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has already proven to be extremely active and extremely dangerous. So far this year there have been 15 storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes (category 3 or stronger). These weather systems have resulted in more than 400 deaths, and more than $188 billion in damages. Connecticut has been spared the worst, but there is still a month to go in the season.
On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy tested the limits of Connecticut’s emergency preparedness programs. According to the National Weather Service, Sandy was a “worse-case scenario for storm surge for coastal regions.” By the time Sandy got to New Jersey, it was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, but the storm surge hit Connecticut right at high tide, causing massive amounts of flooding.
The Tropical Cyclone Report created by the National Hurricane Center reports that there was storm surge over nine feet in New Haven, resulting in floodwaters as high as six feet above ground level. Approximately 3,000 homes were damaged, and the state sustained more than $300 million in damages.
Five years later, is the state of Connecticut ready for another hurricane… or not?
“Our biggest fear in the city of New Haven is a hurricane,” says Rick Fontana, Deputy Director of Emergency Operations in New Haven. “It’s number one. It really is. We’re on the coast, and I think we’re pretty resilient, but when storm surge hits … that becomes a very significant issue.”
In the event of a hurricane, Fontana would work to develop strategies that will lessen the impact of a storm, plan and prepare for different types of storms, and help with the response to and recovery from a storm.
Fontana also serves as one of five regional coordinators in the state for emergency management. His job there is to communicate with the 30 towns in Connecticut’s Region 2 throughout an emergency, and relay information up to the state coordinators.
Quinnipiac's Plan for Emergencies
Quinnipiac University, located in Hamden, Connecticut, falls under Region 2. Edgar Rodriguez is the chief of Public Safety and is also co-captain of the emergency management team at Quinnipiac. The team is made up of about a dozen members from various university departments, including public safety, facilities, health services, and academics. Rodriguez says the team has extensive plans when it comes to storms.
“We’ve come up with an emergency evacuation plan and we talk about if there’s a hurricane or a storm coming, what are we doing, how are we preparing for it,” Rodriguez says, adding that although the plans haven’t been approved by the state, they are still important to have.
When a storm comes, those plans get put into action.
The team begins a 24-hour-to-landfall. Members track the storm, gather information from the state and submit that information to Quinnipiac President John Lahey and Provost Mark Thompson, who ultimately decide whether students should stay at school or be sent home.
Once that decision is made, the emergency management team starts prepping all departments for landfall. Quinnipiac’s emergency management team only goes through the regional coordinators for assistance if it’s a minor, isolated emergency – such as power outages on one specific campus. In the case of an event as major as a hurricane, the protocol is to bypass the region and work directly with the state.
“The rule of thumb is every town or city should be able to sustain themselves for 72 hours,” Rodriguez says, explaining that Quinnipiac acts as its own sort of town for those 72 hours after landfall, with the emergency management team in charge. “Then after that, you start getting assistance from the state. But the entire time that’s happening, you’re communicating back and forth with the state.”
All the information goes up to the state emergency operations center in Hartford, is organized and then is sent out to the public.
“Every hour [the state is] sending us an update on the storm and we take that update and send it to everybody,” says Rodriguez. He feels that this system of organizing the information is a good way to keep consistency and keep everybody on the same page at a time when there could be a lot going on at once.
A building-Block Approach
Dan McElhinney, federal preparedness coordinator and national preparedness division director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), explains that everyone takes a building-block approach for providing and receiving assistance after 72 hours.
“At some point [the town] may have to bring in mutual aid from surrounding communities,” McElhinney says. “When the mutual aid has been exhausted, they’ll ask for county level assistance, then they go to the state ... then the state will declare a state of emergency. The governor then gets special powers to extend additional dollars to direct other state agencies to assist the local community. When the state no longer has the capacity, the governor will ask the president for an emergency or major disaster declaration. That’s when FEMA gets involved.”
FEMA is divided into 10 regions, and McElhinney is in charge of FEMA Region 1, which includes all New England states. He says although FEMA can respond in numbers that would outweigh the state help 100-to-1, they are there to support, not to supplant.
“Basically under the Stafford Act, we pretty much have tasking authority over all the agencies and departments to assist the state in response and recovery,” McElhinney says. “We provide a lot of technical assistance, but we are not there to take over.”
Not only does FEMA provide assistance in the aftermath, but it also provides training services. According to the Quinnipiac website, those who are on the emergency management team have to complete FEMA’s National Incident Management System training. This training is similar to the statewide Emergency Preparedness and Planning Initiative training exercises.
“The state of Connecticut has gotten very aggressive on keeping everyone prepared,” Rodriguez says. “Every year in October or November we do a drill. It’s mandatory for every town and every city through the state of Connecticut and the last few years have been some type of a hurricane.”
During the two-day statewide drill, state officials provide updates as if there were a real hurricane approaching. The state sends out maps of the storm and asks participants to respond to ongoing situations.
“You just lost all power in your town, what are you doing? You’ve got multiple trees that are down, what are you doing? Are you opening up a shelter? How are you transporting people? How much help do you have? Is the fire department on standby? And you have to keep reporting back and forth,” Rodriguez says.
The exercises are meant to be intense, but they’re also meant to replicate a real-life situation so that if and when a hurricane does hit, everyone is prepared. And apparently, you can never be too prepared.
“When a hurricane strikes, people kind of become complacent and never think it’s going to be as bad as it is. We’ve been fortunate, but ... our departments on the preparedness level always scale one level higher than we normally would,” says Fontana. “We’re always prepared but we always prepare above and beyond because it’s easier for us to scale back than it is to scale up in the middle of a crisis.”
The training drills are mandatory for cities and towns that want to receive grant money in order to build resiliency in places along the shorelines or rebuild after a weather event occurs.
coastal resiliency and innovative thinking
Giovanni Zinn, an engineer for the City of New Haven, explains why that grant money is so important.
“There’s a lot more land now and it’s low lying land,” he says. “In the large storms we face two major threats: coastal storm surge, where water is piling up in the harbor and coming up the rivers, and large rain events of six, seven, eight, nine, 10 inches in a short period of time. Where does the water go? When you get both at the same time, you have a particularly bad problem. And there’s no getting around the laws of physics. There are certain situations where you can’t drain the city.”
Zinn says that coastal protection methods -- seawalls, living shorelines and storm surge barriers that are employed in some areas of the state -- are “extremely expensive” and put financial pressure on local communities. He also said he thinks that those preventative measures are “not really a priority” and the long-term thinking tends to be put on the back burner.
But Guilford town planner George Kral says that hard infrastructure like a seawall is actually discouraged by the state of Connecticut.
“The view is that it doesn’t really solve the problem, it just pushes the problem from one place to another,” Kral says, adding that if anything, the goal is to implement green infrastructure instead.
Towns like Guilford have already completed major projects to raise the lowest-lying roads above flood level, as part of the town’s coastal resiliency plan. According to the plan, “coastal resilience is the ability to resist, absorb, recover from, or adapt to coastal hazards such as sea level rise, increased flooding, and more frequent and intense storm surges.” Kral says the plan has two goals: to educate the public on the the importance of coastal resilience, and to suggest actions local governments could take to make themselves more resilient.
And Guilford isn’t the only place thinking about preventative measures.
David Kooris, the Director of the Rebuild By Design and National Disaster Resilience programs for the state Department of Housing, says that after Hurricane Sandy, the federal government reserved about a billion dollars in relief funding to be “competitively awarded to places that demonstrated a new way of recovery that better positioned them to be more resilient for future disasters.”
In 2012, the state of Connecticut had already received $160 million in federal disaster relief money, and was looking for more from the department of housing's two competitions.
“Teams worked over the course of a few months and put together a proposal to the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and to a jury of architects and urban planners to compete for portions of the discretionary funds,” Kooris says about the international Rebuild by Design program. “Seven out of the 10 were awarded funding – the largest being lower Manhattan at $330 million, and the smallest being Bridgeport and the State of Connecticut with $10 million.”
Based on the success of that first program, Kooris says HUD took another chunk of the Sandy money and created a new competition -- this time at the national level -- which became the National Disaster Resilience program. There were 68 eligible government entities (states, cities and counties) that could enter the competition, and 13 were awarded funding at the end – Connecticut coming in 9th place with $54 million.
Kooris says the purpose of competitively divvying the money up was to “move beyond the standard recovery funding through HUD and FEMA, which more than anything else is just rebuilding.” The programs forced cities and towns to work on disaster prevention, rather than disaster recovery.
“Rarely you get the type of project that is new infrastructure – not repairing what was damaged – and do so in a way that explicitly addresses social and economic vulnerabilities in addition to environmental vulnerabilities,” Kooris says.
Connecticut’s plan involved combining “grey and green approaches” as Kooris puts it, by using “traditional, hard engineered solutions combined with natural solutions that mimic the functions of the environment.” He says that the state is planning to raise roads, build berms and add other green infrastructure to mitigate flooding in Bridgeport, in addition to pinpointing other coastal locations with the greatest number of critical facilities -- power plants, roads, hospitals, wastewater treatment -- and putting the majority of the investments into protecting those places.
where connecticut stands now
Since Sandy, officials have had five years to revise and strengthen emergency weather response plans.
“We have developed an emergency operation plan that’s worked on on a daily basis,” Fontana says. “Our primary goals … are preparing our residents, making sure that they’re prepared for any type of a disaster and making sure our infrastructure is protected.”
If another hurricane hit tomorrow, there are mixed feelings on whether Connecticut would be ready.
“If it were some kind of extreme storm like a category 5, that is a whole 'nother ball game. The impact would be severe,” Kral says about the town of Guilford. “Hopefully we’ve done a little better job in terms of planning, but that remains to be seen I guess. If we had 50 inches of rain, we’d have a lot of problems.”
Kooris acknowledges there are still some things that need to be worked on, but for the most part, he says he is “confident that we have implemented targeted infrastructure projects … that reduce risk from future storms.”
As far as Quinnipiac goes, Rodriguez admits “you’re never going to be 100 percent” prepared, but he is confident that the annual mandatory state training has everyone as prepared as they can be to respond.
And in New Haven, Fontana recognizes that a category 3 hurricane “would be devastation to the entire coast” but he is confident in his department, which he says “works every day” and “works hard.”
“We prepare all the time. We plan all the time. We don’t respond all the time, and we don’t recover all the time, but we’re confident that we have the necessary strategies in place to handle a hurricane,” Fontana says.
Adding to his confidence is the fact that FEMA recently awarded the city of New Haven a class 7 rating for flood preparedness and recovery – the highest rating available. Having this rating allows homes in the designated 100-year flood zone to get a 15 percent discount on flood insurance. “So I think that puts it in a nutshell.”
The most important thing through it all? Keeping the lines of communication open, Fontana says, at all times.
“Consistent, timely, good information. I always say, ‘Be first, be right.’”