Is Maine Ready for A Major Disaster?

(from Maine Townsman, October 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

After September 11, after Katrina and Rita, the question all over the country is much the same: Are we ready? Would we do better if the disaster had occurred in our region, and in our state?

In Maine, that question is often directed to elected officials, who in turn must ask the professionals whose jobs it is to keep citizens safe, respond to emergencies – and to think the unthinkable: What if?

The answers to the question vary widely, but a summary of responses from state, county and municipal officials in Maine to “Are we ready?” could be boiled down to the phrase, “Yes, but.”

Overall, officials here are confident that they could avoid some of the specific pitfalls that befell emergency services in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during Katrina – and even the more widely admired and heroic, but still chaotic response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York four years earlier.

But true readiness? “We’re coming along, but it you think we’re ready, I say you’re sadly mistaken and you need to re-evaluate,” said Brunswick Police Chief Jerry Hinton, who’s served 13 years in his current post. “It’s a daunting task.”

Much has changed since Sept. 11, 2001, and local police and fire chiefs and emergency planners are appreciative of the federal effort and dollars put into preparedness since then – some $68 million in Maine over the past three years, about 80 percent of it going to local agencies.

Art Cleaves, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, says that he hopes current funding levels will continue for another four or five years, acknowledging that appropriations tend to follow public perceptions of risk – which will likely continue to be high in the wake of this year’s devastating hurricanes.

For Maine, planning and response starts with MEMA, and Cleaves said that the state is in good shape to answer concerns that preparations for terrorist attacks may have diverted attention from responses to natural disasters.

“In Maine, we incorporated homeland security planning within the existing agency,” Cleaves said, “and it helps us keep a balance. Not every state decided to do it that way.”

Communications – whose failures were evident both on Sept. 11 and during Hurricane Katrina – is another point on which Mainers can feel a bit more confident. “My understanding is that Louisiana was using a lot of Internet-based communications that was wiped out in the storm,” said Cleaves. “We’re keeping our towers, and looking to supplement and add to them, while making sure that we have redundant capacity and different ways to reach our people.” Interoperability – being able to put together the numerous agencies that must respond to various emergencies – is also a key part of the state and local planning efforts.

Cleaves said that he’s pleased with the federal help the state has received to date, and he warns that efforts in Congress to reallocate funding to states with large cities that are presumably more likely to be attacked by terrorists could set back preparedness. “What people don’t always realize is that every state has a minimum level of need, a base that you have to have to be effective,” he said. While there may be specific threats that warrant additional funding elsewhere, it should not come at the expense of the basics for each state plan, he said.

Cleaves said no one should forget that, while federal resources and even the military may be available in an overwhelming emergency, it takes time to organize them and even longer to deploy: “The reality is that in the first 72 hours, you’re basically on your own.”

After the state, the counties are the next line of organization in responding to natural disasters and human-caused threats. While Maine counties have a scant to non-existent role in fire and rescue operations, and only modest law enforcement capabilities, they are charged with operating the second tier of emergency response. The state plan takes into account operations on a statewide scale, and cooperation with other states, but each county also has a plan for emergency response, which in turn is coordinated with each municipality within their borders.

The relatively small part counties play in delivering other services does affect their capabilities to coordinate disaster management. While most county emergency management directors speak highly of their plans, they’re more concerned about their ability to respond during the actual emergency.

“The staffing is thin, there’s no other way to put it,” said Tim Pellerin, Lincoln County director. A career firefighter with Westbrook, he assumed his current role in March and is working to make sure his rural county, with only a small number of emergency professionals, is up to the task.

“You can train and plan, but in an emergency, your staff can only do so much,” he said. Pellerin points out that Lincoln County’s staff consists of himself and his assistant. “If we were ever operating in a 24-hour mode, you can see that we’d be looking for help.”

But emergencies are just where training and routine pay off. While volunteers are often useful, they aren’t going to be able to operate equipment, give instructions and dispatch assistance the way trained professionals can, emergency planners point out.

Jerry Hinton says that the current command center in Brunswick is a room off the town manager’s office. “The space is there, and we have equipment we can bring in. But it’s not as if you can flip a switch and everything is ready.”

Pellerin acknowledges that budgets are tight, and that requests for new funding will hardly be welcome. But he also thinks that elected officials will have to pay more attention to staffing if they want the system to work well.

At perhaps the other end of the staffing equation is Portland, which has by far the state’s largest single organization of emergency responders – police, fire and rescue.

Fred Lamontagne, the fire chief and emergency management director, has 250 firefighters who undergo regular training in all manner of life, and property-threatening scenarios. He doesn’t hesitate in saying, “We’re light years from where we were” a few years ago.

Perhaps in part because of the vulnerability of airports so vividly displayed on Sept. 11, Portland – which has the largest commercial airport in Maine – got extra attention, not only for its transportation links, including a major port, but also for its emergency response teams. Capabilities in dealing with weapons of mass destruction and hazardous materials have clearly improved.

Emergency plans that once sat on the shelf are now taken down and tested regularly – there is some sort of drill or simulation almost monthly – and then revised and improved. “That’s a whole lot easier now with computers than it was when we had to re-type everything,” Lamontagne observes.

The mindset of first responders has changed, too, now that terrorists have demonstrated that they’ll target emergency workers, as happened recently in the London subway and bus bombings. It’s not defensiveness but perhaps wariness – a sense that it can happen here, he said.

While training dealing specifically with terrorism has increased markedly, Lamontagne says that Maine emergency plans recognize, and responders expect, that they’ll more likely be dealing with the consequence of natural disaster – a hurricane, blizzard, windstorm or icestorm. Fortunately, the methods of dealing with one kind of emergency are often applicable to others, though the specific agencies involved and their roles may be different.

Another reason for increased confidence about emergency response is that “we have so many more tools.” Portland responders now have cameras not only at the airport, but at the port and other public facilities – as Lamontagne puts it, “more eyes than we’re used to having.”

Another critical factor is the relationships local agencies have with other levels of government, and Portland now has regular contact with not only state officials but relevant federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, whose role has expanded markedly under the Department of Homeland Security. Public health officials and marine patrols have also been brought into the loop. “It’s important to know who they are before the crisis, and not after,” he said.

Still, the results of Katrina are sobering to emergency officials everywhere, Lamontagne said. “We hadn’t seen anything like this in 150 years. Sure, everyone knew the levees could break, but who really expected anything like this?” He tries to imagine a five-foot snowstorm and blizzard to see if Maine could face a comparable challenge.

To many of those who lived and worked through it, the ice storm of January 1998 was such a test, and one that Maine passed well. Cooperation of different levels of government, and the private sector, was exemplary, said Art Cleaves, and the minimal loss of life from the storm showed that, for this kind of emergency at least, Maine was well prepared.

There are dissenting views, however. Darrel Fournier, Freeport’s fire chief and emergency management director, said he’s a bit frustrated by the town’s unwillingness to increase local spending on preparedness to match the federal grants; like many Maine towns, Freeport has received homeland security funding of $36,257, much of which is being used to improve the local emergency operations center.

Despite overwhelming disasters elsewhere, Fournier said, there’s still a “lack of empathy” among some Mainers, who “don’t believe anything’s going to happen here.”

He acknowledges the local funding issue, as with the counties, is complex. Can a town staff for major emergencies that occur only rarely? One alternative he’d like to look harder at is reducing the number of emergency dispatch centers, of which Maine still has an abundance – 46, at last count.

Even though the Legislature has now mandated the Public Utilities Commission to reduce dispatch centers to 24, Fournier would like to go further, and is interested in a plan now being talked about that would end up with four centers statewide. At the moment, he’s talking with Brunswick and Yarmouth about sharing dispatch duties that are now done by Freeport alone. The idea would be to invest the savings from centralized dispatch into improved emergency preparedness overall.

Any emergency plan has to have priorities, and in Brunswick Police Chief Hinton recognizes that the biggest installations and potential terrorist targets come first. He’s particularly impressed by the improvements in South Portland which, like Portland, borders the airport and has one of the Northeast’s largest tank farms for bulk oil distribution.

Still, every municipality can work toward better emergency capabilities. Brunswick has decided to use much of its $85,000 homeland security grant to improve communication and tailor its capabilities to the idea of setting up at disaster sites.

“The common thread in a lot of the disasters we’ve faced recently is the failure of communications,” Hinton said. “And there are a lot of different ways to go about improving that.”

Brunswick is investing in a mobile command post – an old ambulance – that could be set up anywhere in town, or in adjacent communities, if needed; Brunswick fields the hazmat team for much of the Midcoast and as far north as Augusta. It’s purchased 10 portable radios beyond those needed for its own first responders. “Those are for the volunteers, so they can talk to us in a crisis,” he said.

And the town has even acquired a “gator” vehicle similar to those one sees in sports stadiums used for transporting injured athletes. This particular model has tank-like treads that can clear small trees and traverse shallow water on the way to an accident site.

And municipalities need to share equipment, as well as be able to respond together, he said. In Cumberland County, there are frequent checks of surplus equipment so everyone gets a shot at something that might be useful to another community.

While state and local preparedness has clearly improved over the last five years, this does not seem to have bred any sense of complacency among emergency professionals. Art Cleaves points out that, admirable as the response to the ice storm was, things could have been much worse. “It was comparatively warm afterward, for January, about 30 degrees, when it’s usually 10-20 degrees, and there wasn’t much wind. Even though those still weren’t easy conditions to work in, it could have been much worse, and we would have been in much deeper trouble.”

Vigilance, it seems, will always be the price not only of liberty, as Thomas Jefferson observed, but of emergency preparedness for the worst that human beings and nature can do.