Each morning when West Tisbury emergency management director John Christensen wakes up, he turns on his iPad and checks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s weather forecast. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of winter or hurricane season.
But as hurricane season moves into its later months — the season runs from June to November with peak season occurring between August and October — Mr. Christensen’s iPad checks take on increased importance. Hurricane Bob, the worst storm to hit Martha’s Vineyard in the past generation, arrived in August 1991, flooding streets and felling trees across the Island, knocking out power everywhere. Chappaquiddick and the up-Island communities were without electricity for more than a week. More recently, the Island coped with the unpredictability of Hurricane Earl in September 2011, rain and wind from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and the sustained shoreline damage and flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.
In each case, from Bob to Sandy and every hurricane in between, Island emergency management has been on the scene, working to coordinate pre-storm preparations as well as recovery and mitigation. And as peak storm season approaches this year, emergency management officials are working to put new technologies in place and improve communication among the six Island towns.
During Bob, Islanders relied on local radio station WMVY and Island newspapers for information. A special edition of the Vineyard Gazette after Hurricane Bob (printed at the Inquirer and Mirror on Nantucket because the power was out in Edgartown) sold out. When the power came back on, the Gazette went to a second printing for the first time in its history.
Today with communication technology dramatically changed since Hurricane Bob, emergency managers say the need for an Islandwide system to disseminate efficient and accurate mass information on a Vineyard-specific level remains a pressing issue.
All towns use the reverse 911 Code Red system to send out notifications about the dangers and response to a storm. Edgartown uses both Code Red and a text messaging service. In July, Dukes County adopted the Ping4 system, allowing visitors to download a smartphone application to receive crucial safety information.
Dukes County officials are working to facilitate the dispersal of mass information. In May a regional emergency planning committee received official start-up approval from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The committee’s existence is mandated by federal law as part of a hazardous material right-to-know program. On the Vineyard, it is also an extension of the emergency management directors association.
“This is a different time,” said Christopher Cini, emergency management director for the town of Tisbury. “We have more resources, we have a lot more ability to communicate to move resources back and forth, we have a lot more capability than we’ve ever had before. As a group, we’ve evolved.”
While the Island fire, EMS and police departments have provided mutual aid to each other for years, the broader group of emergency and key infrastructure personnel faces the challenge of negotiating different resources available to each town.
“We have six towns, the tribe, the county, all with different cultures and different historical contexts, and they haven’t always lent themselves to effective collaboration,” Mr. Cini said. “And that’s been changing, which is a very nice thing to see.”
Each town has its own assets and disadvantages during a storm, explains Peter Martell, longtime emergency manager for Oak Bluffs. While each town has shoreline property, some towns have more residents living near the ocean than others. Some towns have larger populations than others. Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs have easier access to the Steamship Authority, but residents of up-Island towns would have to traverse storm-stricken terrain in order to evacuate. In an extreme storm scenario, the town of Aquinnah could be cut off entirely if State Road washes away. Many low-lying Island roadways become inundated and impassable during severe storms. FEMA released updated flood plain maps in June, showing more areas of the Island vulnerable to flooding. Sharing resources among towns is imperative to effective response, emergency directors say. “It’s not just a case of, well, I’ve got mine; it’s a question of how we work together,” said Mr. Cini. On an Island seven miles from the mainland with little immediate aid to rely on from other communities, the impetus to share resources is strong. When the boats don’t run and the planes can’t land, Island towns turn to each other for mutual aid. The emergency management association, whose members are the emergency managers of each town, always meet before oncoming storms, conference calling with MEMA and the National Weather Service.
But it is a well known fact that it can be hard for the six towns to agree on anything, and emergency management is no different.
“You are never going to satisfy everybody but if you protect them, that’s a good way to start,” said Gary Robinson, emergency management director in Aquinnah.
At a meeting of the newly-formed regional committee in mid-May, five towns and Gosnold had been approved as members. Oak Bluffs has since submitted paperwork to join. Many regional Island agencies have also joined. County emergency management director Chuck Cotnoir, who lobbied for a regional emergency committee on the Island for the better part of a decade, says the Island will benefit.
“It gives a formal venue for all parties to participate,” agreed Timothy Carroll, emergency manager in Chilmark.
The idea is for the Vineyard Transit Authority, schools, town highway departments, NStar, Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Wampanoag tribe, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and other groups to come together to form a cohesive Islandwide response in the event of hurricanes and extreme storms. MEMA has encouraged each region in the state to form a committee and is pleased that the Vineyard has also done so.
“Chuck Cotnoir is to be commended for his efforts,” said Doug Forbes, local coordinator for MEMA.
The group is large and new and still figuring out its exact role in the community.
“It’s like being a parent for the first time; we are still trying to figure out what are the right things to do and the wrong things to do,” said Mr. Robinson. He has been on the Island for two years and said in that time he has seen strides in collaboration among emergency management directors. “I’ve seen more unified tabletop discussions,” he said. “I think it’s getting better and better.”
NOAA is forecasting an active hurricane season this year. The forecast is part of a larger pattern of increasing numbers of natural disasters. “Mother Nature is really working overtime to kill us,” Mr. Martell said.
If a large storm hits the Island this fall, for the first time the county will use its new joint information center and a web page for disaster response that has been created by Mr. Cotnoir.
“Ten years ago, things like Code Red and landlines were perfect,” said Adam Darack, director of information technology in Edgartown. But since then, Mr. Darack said, he has come to realize that texting is better. “It’s the best, most efficient mode of communication” for relaying important information, he said. Edgartown uses a text alert system that costs $500 a year and was inspired by Sharky’s Cantina in Oak Bluffs. In 2009, when the board of health in that town declared a boil water order, many residents got the word first via text alerts from Sharky’s. Mr. Darack saw it as an opportunity to adopt the technology for the town’s use. This summer the town used the system to send out texts alerting residents to the presence of Portuguese man of wars on south-facing beaches.
The message went out to approximately 1,200 people signed up for Edgartown text alerts. The man of war infestation also marked the first use of the county Ping 4 technology, available to visitors as a smartphone application. Nantucket also adapted the Ping4 technology about six weeks ago.
Twitter and Facebook are other tools available for putting out emergency information.
“I think the Island is still in the genesis state of putting things together,” Mr. Robinson said. “There is a lot of dedication . . . and people are working very hard to protect the citizens. We are all kind of learning on the fly, not so much the profession of emergency management direction, but to work together,” he added.
“There’s always been good cooperation in time of need,” Mr. Christensen said. “There are plans in place to tap Islandwide resources, but putting larger plans into place is going to take some time. I think it’s going to take a few years to develop, to explore what we need to do, to get all the disciplines talking.”