Officials: Town’s Disaster Preparedness Is Strong, But Could Be Better

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Infrastructure , Storms

Stormwater breaks through sand bags at Little Beach. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Retired CG Commander Will Be New Emergency Manager

CHATHAM With peak hurricane season approaching, and with last winter’s severe winter storms still fresh in people’s memories, the town is answering questions about its state of disaster preparedness.

Fire Chief Peter Connick told selectmen Monday that the town has hired John Kondratowicz, a retired Coast Guard captain and professor of emergency management, to be the town’s first dedicated emergency manager.

“John Cauble put his heart and soul into emergency management,” Connick said, but with the recent retirement of the deputy police chief, Connick has been serving as emergency management director. During emergencies, “we’re pretty busy with our own departments,” he said, and Kondratowicz will help coordinate town services and communicate key messages to the public.

John Kondratowicz will begin work as Chatham’s emergency manager next month. FILE PHOTO

John Kondratowicz will begin work as Chatham’s emergency manager next month. FILE PHOTO

Selectmen took up the topic of emergency preparedness at the request of resident Elaine Gibbs, who said hurricanes and winter storms are likely to become more frequent and more severe. While the town is working on a comprehensive approach to controlling erosion and flooding on east-facing beaches, “the government’s primary responsibility is public safety,” she said.

Last winter’s coastal storms showed the fragility of the key infrastructure, with widespread power outages and cell phone service blackouts. Gibbs faulted the county emergency planning committee for deciding to open only some of the Cape’s regional shelters during a storm in March and for making that decision late in the day when driving conditions were already poor. Many Chatham residents would rather shelter in their own town than drive to the closest regional shelter, the Cape Cod Tech school in Pleasant Lake, she said.

“We need to become more self-sufficient as a community,” Gibbs said. The town should have opened “warming stations” at key facilities to allow local residents a few hours’ respite from the storm, she said. “Warming and charging stations do not have to follow the same guidelines as shelters,” she said.

Gibbs proposed the creation of a Community Emergency Response Team to recruit and train volunteers to staff such centers or to assist with other tasks like clearing downed trees from driveways. She urged the town to find more reliable ways to communicate emergency information to citizens, including better use of the Swift911 automated messaging system.

“Hurricanes and winter storms won’t wait for us to get enhancements in place,” she said.

Selectmen agreed that there are areas where the town can improve its emergency management. Board member Cory Metters said consideration should be given to local warming centers.

“We have the buildings. We have, in theory, the personnel,” he said.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said he agrees that volunteers can also play a role.

“I think that’s something we should seriously consider as a plan,” he said.

While the coastal storms were unfortunate, their timing was fortuitous because they prompted discussion of emergency management needs in time for the annual town meeting, Connick said.

“There’s nothing like a good storm to get us talking about emergency management,” he said.

The May annual town meeting approved funding for the part-time emergency manager position, and Kondratowicz is expected to start work next month. Connick said he brings with him a wealth of experience in disaster planning and response; Kondratowicz also worked in the command posts for events like G-8 Summits, U.N. General Assembly meetings, and Super Bowl games, he said. As the former head of Coast Guard stations around the Cape and Islands, he also has local knowledge, Connick said.

In the meantime, the town has been adding equipment that will allow key town buildings to be powered by portable generators, Connick said. Emergency management now has its own page on the town website, with updated information, he added. About 1,000 people are signed up to receive Swift911 notifications, and Connick encouraged all residents who haven’t done so to sign up using the link on the town’s home page.

The police and fire departments are equipped with low-tech analog backup telephones, which functioned even when digital infrastructure went down during recent storms. The town also now has a high-water rescue vehicle capable of fording flood waters as deep as those seen last winter.

Years ago, for emergencies like Hurricane Bob, Chatham opened its own shelter at the former Chatham High School. The key problem was staffing, Connick said. For the first 12 to 24 hours, town employees provided adequate coverage, but they then had to go home to tend to their own families. “After that, we ran out of people to do it,” he said. That problem was not unique to Chatham, he added.

“The regional shelters really offer us some things that are a little more complicated to offer on a local basis,” Connick said. Clients at a regional shelter can bring their pets, have more options for sleeping arrangements and better access to medical care. Food preparation is also easier because of the large stockpile of food and the regional agreement that provides food service staff.

Regional shelters are capable of providing those services, “and can do that for days on end. I really don’t want to suggest that we could not do a several-hour warming or cooling center,” Connick said, but the services provided would be very limited. The town did operate a warming center during one of last winter’s storms, with town staff on hand during the day. But at the end of the day, power had not yet been restored, and staff were scheduled to go home. When it comes to warming centers, “it’s easy to get people in. It’s not always easy to get people out.”

Still, when Kondratowicz starts work, he’ll be examining ways the town can be more self-sufficient, including the creation of a volunteer cadre. But when it comes to sheltering, “I think we really need to stay invested in what it is that we’re doing now,” Connick said.

Self-sufficiency during emergencies begins at the family level, Connick said.

“Have you thought about whether you’ll be able to look after yourself and your family for 72 hours?” Connick asked selectmen. Families need to have a disaster plan, adequate emergency supplies including water, and a strategy for communicating their well-being to family members outside the disaster area. It’s useful to have a backup plan for keeping cell phones charged and for getting the garage door open when the power is out, he added.

Resident Norma Avellar said that, during World War II, each Cape town had a volunteer corps.

“There was a civil defense team,” she said. Avellar urged the town to continue its disaster preparedness work and to not be satisfied with continued discussions. “We need to do something concrete,” Avellar said.