Sunday, September 11, 2011

Responding to Irene in New Jersey

In May of this year I made my first visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey to assist as instructor for the pilot of FEMA's new State Mass Care Coordinator's Course. That was when I first met Bill Schaffer, my counterpart and the State Mass Care Coordinator for NJ. I told him if he ever needed any help to call me, because if I had a big storm bearing down on me I was definitely going to call him to send me a couple of people to help me out.

Little did I know ...

I spent the weekend of Aug 20-21 watching all the computer models steer Irene into Florida as a major hurricane and I was loading Bill Schaffer and a lot of other friends into my speed dial. By Tuesday Bill was looking at a possible historic Category 2 impact on New Jersey and we started chatting on the phone about what he and the Garden State were facing.

"What are the chances you can come up here?" he asked me.

Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) the state of New Jersey could request me and pay my expenses. Florida requested and received over 800 state and municipal workers from other states during the historic 2004 hurricane season. I had EMACed before, to Mississippi in 2005 after Katrina and to Baton Rouge in 2008 for Ike. With the hurricane season already going hot and heavy, I didn't think I could be gone for 14 days, the normal EMAC deployment, but I could handle 7 days out of the state.

Since I'm a state employee who doesn't own his own work time I had to check this out with my bosses in the agency and they were agreeable. I told Bill I was ready to go and by Friday morning I received my deployment orders and I was on the plane to Philadelphia that afternoon. The storm was 48 hours from landfall.

The Rock
On Saturday August 27 I arrived at the New Jersey Intelligence and Operations Center (aka The Rock) at a little after six in the morning. The dark clouds in the sky and the whispers of the wind reminded me of other early mornings when I walked into a building to prepare for the arrival of a hurricane. The National Hurricane Center said that tropical storm force winds would arrive that afternoon, so whatever other resources needed to be moved, they had to be rolling that morning.

Bill and I quickly arrived at a division of labor. Bill's situation reminded me of the old saying, "When you're up to your ass in alligators, its hard to remember your original objective was to drain the swamp." We decided that Bill would focus on the alligators while I figured out the resources required to drain this particular swamp.

Bill was worried about what was happening that moment, that day. My job was to determine what mass care resources New Jersey would require in two days and the rest of the week. To do that I had to define the scale of the disaster. To determine the mass care resources required for a disaster response (whether hurricane, earthquake or flood) one has to define the scale of the disaster in terms of population, geography and intensity. The process to accomplish this task is defined in the State Mass Care Coordinator's Course (see previous post on this Course).

Unfortunately, the NHC predicted track carried the eye of the storm up the coast of the state. Fortunately, the predicted intensity had dropped to a Category 1. In my 16 year emergency management career I had responded to many Category 1 hurricanes in Florida.  All of those responses had been handled by our counties, with little assistance from the state. But New Jersey wasn't Florida (duh!). The building codes were different, the emergency management capabilities of the counties, municipalities and voluntary agencies were different. Yet they had endured the vaunted winter nor'easters. Was this equivalent to a Category 1 hurricane? Is a Category 5 hurricane equivalent to an 8.0 earthquake? Don't know.

The State Mass Care Coordinators Course also says that we need to define the scale of the disaster, estimate the mass care requirements and determine what resources the voluntary agencies are providing by 24 hours before impact (or by 12 hours after for a no-notice event). If the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other voluntary agencies didn't have enough resources to meet the mass care requirements then the state and/or federal government  had to step in to meet the shortfalls. Most states have little or no mass care capability, so FEMA would have to make up any identified shortfalls. And FEMA needed time to get the stuff and get it there.

When I showed up at the Rock on Saturday morning we were almost 24 hours from the impact of Irene. The state of New Jersey had to make a decision: did they need to ask FEMA for additional mass care resources? Or not? The biggest contribution that I could make all week was to help them make that decision.

Even my admirers will admit that I am overly opinionated on many subjects, but especially on mass care. On this topic I kept my opinions to myself. I waited to be asked and I wasn't. I knew that they weren't asking FEMA for additional resources and I silently concurred in that decision. If I thought that they had a substantial mass care shortfall and needed more resources I would have spoken up. They didn't so I didn't.

Working Irene in the Rock
Overall I would say that New Jersey did really well in responding to Irene. They haven't had a lot of practice with hurricanes in the last century. A number of people told me that this was the largest disaster that New Jersey had experienced in their memory. Consequently, they were unaccustomed to an event this large and had to devise better coordination and communication procedures. In the seven days that I was there, I could see them taking these actions.

The risks from a hurricane are from wind, surge and inland flooding. The old Red Cross adage is to "Run from the water and hide from the wind." New Jersey did that. The greatest effect that Irene had on them was from inland flooding, and that had a lot of practice with inland flooding.

The most impressive part (to me) was that NJ didn't ask for resources from FEMA during the response. With all 21 counties (for the first time) federally declared for Individual Assistance and Public Assistance under the Stafford Act, New Jersey will get their fair share of federal recovery funds. For a medium sized (by population) state they handled a big disaster (not a catastrophic, as some Jerseyites tried to tell me, or even a major disaster) using their own resources during the response. Good job.

But you're only as good as your last disaster. And they could be doing the same or a bigger hurricane again in two weeks. I told this to anyone who would listen. I also said that this wasn't their worst case scenario. And good wasn't good enough. The citizens of New Jersey want and deserve the best. I think that they can deliver it.

I discovered that I was the first individual to ever EMAC into New Jersey. I went there because I truly wanted to help the people of New Jersey in a big response. I also had an ulterior motive. I am the state Mass Care Coordinator for Florida but I have no staff and no budget. When the Big One hits Florida (and it will) I will be looking for help from other states. New Jersey assured me that they will be there when I need them.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Schaffer6:12 AM

    I was brought up to believe that if you drive a car, you buy insurance. If you want to make "absolutely sure" that this policy will be in effective and the policy will pay off after a mishap, you get a "premium policy" from an "honest broker" who sells insurance.
    Mike you were NJ's insurance policy, you have been there and done that, from a great state that actually responds to and know how to recover from hurricanes, top of the class - a premiere mass care coordinator and an SME in that field. From working with you in May, and knowing your Military background I knew I did not need to ask, you would let me know where the problems were. If this had been a Cat 2 LFH with the eyewall going directly over the length of NJ as predicted - I need not tell how differently your deployment would have been.