Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hurricane Sandy's inundation of Crisfield, Maryland

On Sunday evening, October 28, as I kept one eye on supper cooking on the grill, another eye on the late NFL football game, and still another eye on the track of Hurricane Sandy, I received the phone call that I had been waiting for. My state mass care coordinator counterpart in Maryland, Pam Spring, wanted to know if I could give her a hand.

I had been playing my favorite game all weekend, following the track of the storm using my Hurrevac software and figuring out where it was going. More correctly, guessing where the storm was going based on the NHC forecast. And the storm looked like it was heading for Baltimore, MD.  

By Wednesday, October 31,  when I got on the plane to Baltimore the storm had jogged to the right. Pam and I knew that Maryland had dodged a bullet but I also knew that some parts of the state had been hit hard. Sandy's impact on Maryland wasn't the big disaster like New York and New Jersey, but the state had flooded homes and citizens in  distress. A lot of them were in Crisfield, MD.

Crisfield is a small town of 2,700 souls in Somerset County on the southwestern tip of the peninsula. Sandy's winds, coming off the mainland, pushed the waters of the Chesapeake Bay into the city, inundating as many as one third of the 1,100 structures.  I got that estimate directly from the city's building inspector in his office at city hall.

Pam and I along with Ginny Hazen, a fellow Floridian from Broward County, who accompanied me on the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) mission to Maryland, left Reisterstown the morning of Thursday, November 1, to drive to Crisfield. I drove Pam's state vehicle, with Pam in the front seat, while Ginny followed in our rental car.

In a trend that was to continue for the next three days, Pam talked on her cell phone almost continuously. From Resisterstown, location of the State EOC, and northwest of Baltimore, there was no easy route to the DelMarVa peninsula. It was either sit in traffic on the interstate or grind our way through the big city. Ginny and I got the non-scenic tour of the city. 

Having only been to Baltimore once, I was totally dependent on Pam's directions, and Pam was busy filling up a notepad with incoming and outgoing phone calls. Ginny, behind us, was focused on keeping up. At one point in the middle of the city, I got Pam's attention and asked for directions.

She looked around and said, "We missed the turn." Pause. "We're in a really bad part of town." Pause. "Lock the doors."

We got out of Baltimore and I made my first trip across the Chesapeake Bay bridge. I would have had a better chance to see the view if I hadn't been driving. I had never been to the beautiful, rural, farm country of the Maryland peninsula, and I thought it sad that it took a disaster to bring me there. After a 4 hour drive halfway across Maryland, I reached Crisfield and finally saw a place that looked like it had been hit by a hurricane. You know, the usual signs: utility trucks, chain saw crews, traffic lights not giving out a lot of guidance. 

We had a meeting scheduled at City Hall  with the Mayor of Crisfield and we were there on time. As the senior, local elected official,  he was in charge, and we were there to do what we could to help him and his city. The big issue facing the Mayor was that his city inspector was getting ready to condemn 123 public housing units and place up to 278 citizens in the position of having to leave their home.

We walked out of the meeting and into a 2 1/2 day whirlwind of activity. The Mayor wanted a shelter, a Point of Distribution (POD) and an information center set up at the Woodrow Wilson Community Center, which was a short walk from the affected public housing units.

The Woodrow Wilson Community Center in Crisfield

The line of trash on a fence near the Community Center showing the height of the surge.
The Crisfield Essential Services Center
Volunteers assembling at the Crisfield City Hall for a day of service
Supplies at the POD in the Fire/Rescue facility in north Crisfield
The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and I outside the Woodrow Wilson Community Center.

Me, Pam Spring and Ginny Hazen on the last day of our assignment in Maryland.

After three hours of frenetic activity, triggered by Pam's cell phone, trucks were unloaded with supplies, tables were moved and set up, a Salvation Canteen showed up in the parking lot to feed, and the Mayor had what he wanted.

The Mayor wanted to call the information center a Disaster Recovery Center but I advised against it.

"A Disaster Recovery Center implies that FEMA is here, and as of right now, we have no federal declaration," I said. "When we have this situation in Florida, we set up what we call an Essential Services Center."

The Mayor agreed. As a reward for my suggestion, Pam put me charge of the ESC.  The Governor decided to put those in the condemned units that wanted to leave in a hotel, and some of them took him up on the offer. 

With the immediate needs of the affected inhabitants of the public housing units addressed, we expanded our outreach to the rest of the town. Ginny Hazen, my partner from Broward County, took over the Volunteer Coordination role for the city and did a fabulous job. The volunteer response was tremendous, and there was a lot of work to be done in the town. The locals were remarkably well organized and industrious. They sent volunteers out to assess the need on one day, recording exact addresses and requirements. Then, when the Southern Baptist chain saw crews showed up the next day, they had a list of jobs to perform.

The Mayor directed that a second POD be set up in a Fire/Rescue facility in the northern part of town. Feeling that I was underemployed, Pam added responsibility for establishing the second POD to my portfolio. I met with whoever was in charge at the Fire/Rescue station and showed him how to set up a drive through POD. A truck from the Food Bank arrived with canned goods. Other trucks arrived with bottled water and Red Cross Clean Up kits.

But I can't forget the elderly woman who showed up and asked the most repeated question I was to hear during the time I was in Maryland: "Is FEMA here?"

"No, Ma'am," I said. "They aren't."

"Well, my carpets got all wet and they're starting to smell. Do you know when they're coming?"

"Well Ma'am, FEMA can't do anything until there's a federal declaration. The Governor and the President are discussing it. When they make a decision, they'll let us know."

There was nothing that I could do to put this old woman's life back in order, but I still felt bad that I couldn't do anything. Crisfield reminded me of Pearlington, Mississippi, a small town that was hit much harder than Crisfield, but still left me feeling bad that I couldn't do more. Unlike Pearlington, however, I wasn't sure that Crisfield was going to get their federal declaration. Therefore, I was pleased to hear today that Crisfield and Somerset County were awarded a federal declaration last Friday and a Disaster Recovery Center is now open in the city.

By Sunday we had addressed the immediate needs of Somerset County. The long road to recovery was still ahead. Pam released Ginny and I from our EMAC assignment and we headed home. Sandy wasn't finished for me, however. When I got home from Maryland on Monday, November 5, I departed 3 hours later for 2 weeks in New York.