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County Comment/Isabel Tests County Disaster Plan

by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer

At its September 23rd meeting, the Board of County Commissioners heard Department of Emergency Services Director Joe Kroboth report on actions taken by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) during Hurricane/Tropical Storm Isabel.

Kroboth told the Board that preparations began on Sunday, September 14th. Operational Briefings were held during that week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 1:00 p.m. each day, and the Hurricane Isabel Incident Action Plan was updated daily as the storm approached. The meetings stressed focusing on the true objectives of the operation.

Governor Robert Ehrlich declared a State of Emergency on Tuesday, followed by a similar declaration in Washington County on Wednesday by Commissioners’ President Greg Snook. Washington County was at one time expected to be in the path of the eye of the storm as it traveled inland.

The EOC was activated at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 19th and deactivated at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, September 20th. During that time, members of all area agencies involved in protection of lives and property worked together to ensure information was provided to the public and that emergency services reached areas hard hit by the winds and rain. Kroboth called the EOC the voice of government during crisis situations. At least one County Commissioner or the County Administrator was on hand at all times during the storm.

During the overnight period, notices on shelter availability, water conservation needs, road closings, power outages, and other storm effects were delivered to media outlets by Internet, fax, phone call and direct interaction.

Cooperation between City, County and State agencies was considered very productive. DES, the County Emergency Management Agency, the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, Public Works, Information Technologies, the Public Information Office, Permits and Inspections, the Health Department, American Red Cross, City of Hagerstown Government, City Police and Fire, Maryland State Police, Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services (RACES), Washington County Public Schools, and the Washington County Health System, all worked together during the event. Kroboth cited the City of Hagerstown’s provision of a live cablecast with Emergency Management Agency officials, on what citizens should do in riding out the storm. The City then repeated broadcasts hourly throughout the night. Channel 6 also cablecast telephone numbers to be used for non-emergency citizen information.

Technology played a strong role in the event, allowing up to the minute assessment of storm direction and intensities. Internet interruptions occurred starting at about midnight, however, due to failure of communication lines in Baltimore. Redundant systems were utilized to communicate with media during the early hours of Friday the 20th.

Three shelters were activated during the period, North Hagerstown High School, Maugansville Fire Company and Clear Spring Fire Company, but only nine persons sought refuge and of those only two were evacuees.

By midnight it was apparent that the storm would not reach predicted intensities in Washington County, with sustained winds reaching only about 32-33 miles per hour instead of 60 plus as had been forecast. Only about 2 inches of rain fell in the area, Kroboth said as opposed to 10 inches predicted. The 9-1-1 Dispatch Center received 350 calls on Thursday and about 200 on Friday, Kroboth said. The Potomac River rose to about 25 feet at Hancock, but major flooding did not occur on the river or the tributaries. Eight County damage assessment teams were deployed on Friday with information gathered sent to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Several meetings with FEMA officials have been held during the recovery period, Kroboth said, and information on how to apply for disaster assistance has been disseminated to media and municipalities in the County.

An incident critique is set for October 10th, and items to be discussed include deficiencies in the EOC facility and communications, parking for agency representatives and volunteers, and the number of 9-1-1 dispatchers available for duty. Many of the dispatchers are part of Fire or Emergency Medical Services operations, and were called in by their companies.

The City, County and region were very lucky in this incident, Kroboth said, and commended all participating agencies for the team effort during the EOC activation.

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