Cape’s emergency planners learn from mistakes | CapeCodOnline.com
Cape’s emergency planners learn from mistakes
As a massive snowstorm threatened Cape Cod in early February, local emergency planners chose to open only three of six regional shelters.
Power outages and cold weather continued in the days following the storm, stretching volunteer ranks thin and prompting increased criticism by residents in areas where shelters were left shuttered, especially in Hyannis.
“There were some concerns raised,” Barnstable Deputy Police Chief Craig Tamash said.
And despite a relatively quiet hurricane season so far this year, officials have redoubled their efforts to be better prepared.
One of the problems at the time of the February storm was that the regional shelter at Barnstable High School in Hyannis was not equipped to take pets. In addition, the school’s generator was not adequate for a shelter scenario, according to local officials.
Since then, the regional shelter in Hyannis has been moved from the high school to nearby Barnstable Intermediate School, volunteer recruitment efforts across the Cape have increased and emergency planners implemented a policy to open all six regional shelters during any Capewide events.
“We won’t make that mistake again,” Michael Whalen, Dennis police chief and co-chairman of the Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee, said about limiting the number of shelters open during emergencies that affect the entire region.
The February storm showed the capabilities and shortcomings of Cape’s 5-year-old regional shelter system, Whalen said.
The storm tested planners’ assumptions about who would use the shelters. Many needed medical or other assistance, Whalen said.
Another big lesson was that generators at schools aren’t necessarily sufficient for a long-term sheltering situation, he said.
Rachel Potts with the American Red Cross recently arranged for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inspect and report on the capacity of each generator being used at the shelters, Whalen said.
The regional planning committee is also trying to assist at satellite shelters that may be opened in Bourne on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal and in Provincetown, which could be cut off because of low-lying geography on the Lower Cape, Whalen said.
EMERGENCIES RAMP UP VOLUNTEER INTEREST
There were successes during the February storm.
An agreement with the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District to provide food services, including for other shelters as necessary, worked well during the last storm as did transportation assistance provided by the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority, Whalen said. AmeriCorps volunteers and the National Guard were crucial in the response, he said.
The volunteers who responded were heroes, sometimes staying on the job for days without relief, according to Whalen and other emergency officials.
But more are always needed, according to the leaders of the agencies which staff the regional shelters.
Ironically, they say, disasters help.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the February blizzard and the Boston Marathon bombings, the American Red Cross saw a 180 percent increase in volunteers across the organization’s eastern region.
There are now 2,048 Red Cross volunteers available in the eastern region, which includes 181 communities, Red Cross spokeswoman Kat Powers wrote in an email to the Times.
On the Cape, the Red Cross established recruiting teams and the recent string of emergencies helped boost interest, said Hilary Greene, Cape Cod and Islands chapter executive director.
“Last year was quite a year,” she said.
Cape Red Cross volunteers increased from less than 200 to 265, in addition to volunteers available off-Cape, Greene said.
But the Red Cross needs volunteers 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to house fires and other, smaller, emergencies, Greene said.
“It’s a different type of volunteer,” she said about volunteers needed for longer-term events like storms.
The Red Cross on Cape Cod has reached out to specific groups, including starting a training program for employees of large businesses on how to prepare for an emergency, starting with a partnership with Cape Air, she said.
“We are looking for more companies like that,” she said.
There is also a need, based on the experience in February, for more volunteers with backgrounds in health and mental health, she said.
Of the 1,153 people who came to shelters during the storm, 90 percent were over 80 years old, said Cape Cod Medical Reserve Corps director Jean Roma.
“We had the World War II generation,” she said, adding that the demographics at shelters off-Cape were more balanced.
And volunteers on the Cape may not be around during the cold months, she said.
“They’re here for hurricane season, which has always been wonderful, and after the holidays they tend to leave,” she said.
The Medical Reserve Corps, which provides medical and nonmedical assistance during emergencies, has about 300 volunteers but typically only about 100 are active, Roma said. During the storm, she had about 29 nurses working 12-hour shifts, she said.
The group has added 37 volunteers since February but she can always use more, Roma said.
Those who do volunteer give it their all, she said.
Many of the volunteers are emergency room or practicing nurses and during the February storm they would often come to a shelter to help after a brief rest following their regular job, Roma said.
Although she tries to have volunteers on duty for only 12-hour shifts, in at least one case in Orleans a nurse worked for 52 hours with little rest during the storm, Roma said.
Now Roma says she’s looking for ways to schedule differently, including the possibility of short shifts to help relieve those who are on for longer stretches.
She’s also seeing neighborhoods preparing to help themselves and working with groups to ensure there are services at the shelter to assist people with special needs like the sight impaired.
Groups like the Cape’s Community Emergency Response Teams play a key role but with everyone looking for volunteers there’s a lot of competition, Roma said.
“We’re all struggling and there’s only so many volunteers to go around,” she said.
PROTECTING FURRY FRIENDS
Despite the challenges it faces, the Cape is far ahead of other parts of the state in working regionally to prepare for emergencies, Roma and other officials said.
“The resources are much greater than the town trying to do it themselves,” Barnstable Deputy Police Chief Tamash said.
This includes preparations for the peninsula’s furrier residents.
The Cape Cod Disaster Animal Response Team is holding six orientations in the next two months, said the group’s president and founder, Holly Rogers.
The group has between 30 and 35 volunteers, who help prepare the shelters so people can bring their pets, too, which is sometimes key to convincing them to come at all, Rogers said.
Volunteers train at area animal shelters but don’t necessarily have to work hands on with animals, she said.
Some man registration desks or help in other ways, she said.
Like everyone else who spoke to the Times for this story, Rogers said she could always use more volunteers.
Currently she has enough help, if all her volunteers are available, to man three of the six regional shelters for between 36 and 48 hours, Rogers said.
“The only thing that’s holding us back is a lack of volunteers,” she said.
In addition to all of the extra effort in the wake of the February storm, local emergency planners have done what they always do.
Supplies have been checked, cots repaired and inventories done, said Sean O’Brien, coordinator of the regional emergency planning committee.
“This is what we do every year,” O’Brien said. “It doesn’t matter what the storm is.”
Cape Cod DART sessions
Cape Cod Disaster Animal Response Team will hold one-day orientation sessions for anyone interested in learning about the Barnstable County Regional Sheltering Plan and the role the organization plays, as well as information on volunteering. Sessions are open to anyone over 18.
All sessions will run from 12:30-4:30 p.m. on the following dates:
Oct. 20: Mashpee fire station
Nov. 3: Chatham police station
Nov. 17: Dennis police station
Dec. 8: Yarmouth police station
Dec. 22: Eastham police station
Jan. 5: Falmouth fire station
For more information: www.capecoddart.org
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