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Sandy tests Md. emergency preparations

Baltimore emergency officials expected devastation on par with Hurricane Katrina. Expecting Hurricane Sandy to knock out communications, they coordinated with local radio to broadcast public safety information and planned a "carrier pigeon" network that might have relied on inflatable boats for transportation.

Helicopter rescue squads, chain-saw-toting tree climbers and thousands of National Guard troops stood ready statewide. When the storm's worst pummeled New Jersey and New York, most of those resources were sent north.

But in Garrett County, the opposite happened — a heavy, wet snow surprised local officials, crippling the power grid and blocking roads. As the severity became apparent, the county sought reinforcements, including a search-and-rescue team sent from Baltimore on Thursday. And in Crisfield, westerly winds pushed Sandy's storm surge into low-lying homes, necessitating hundreds of water rescues and overwhelming first responders.

Preparation is at the root of disaster management, and nature does not spare the unprepared, emergency officials said. As Maryland assesses its response to its most recent weather disaster, officials recognized that while the storm's wrath met or fell short of expectations in some areas, it was far more than other areas could handle alone.

Nature's capriciousness means emergency managers must strike a balance between giving sufficient warning and crying wolf.

"If the weather forecast had come out and you had told me, 'You're going to get 100 mph-plus winds and you're going to get tide surges of 6 feet,' I would have shut everything down — water, sewer, every business, and gone door-to-door and tried to scare the hell out of everybody and I would have been doing it for days," Crisfield Mayor P.J. Purnell said. "We were prepared for what we were told was coming."

Early decisions vital

Two days before Sandy arrived, the National Hurricane Center's forecasting models predicted that the storm would make landfall on the Delmarva Peninsula. Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency Friday morning, well before blustery winds and drizzle arrived as harbingers. Communities began preparations, and Maryland officials began lining up resources from outside the state.

Lead time is vital when preparing for a disaster, said Ken Mallette, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

"You have to make those decisions beforehand," he said. "If you start thinking you need something, it's too late. You needed it before you thought about it."

That meant a long wish list of specialized personnel and equipment, Mallette said. The state mustered crews of emergency managers from as far away as Texas, Mississippi, Indiana and Kansas; 4,300 National Guard soldiers along with Humvees and helicopters, chain saw crews from the U.S. Forestry Service, and swift-water rescue teams from around the country.

"I base my resource request on the worst-case scenario," Mallette said.

In Baltimore, city agencies were told to prepare for a loss of cellphone service and emergency communications systems, said Robert Maloney, the city's deputy chief for emergency management. That prompted the backup plan of broadcasting information over AM radio, and fears of massive flooding prompted the call for boats and added fire and medic units, he said.

Had the storm tracked straight into Delmarva and stalled over Baltimore, as was forecast earlier, officials expected conditions similar to those being faced in New Jersey. They prepared for heavy flooding, wind damage and rapidly spreading fires.

"Out of all the emergencies we've had, it was going to be complete and catastrophic," Maloney said.

Sandy's turn to the north prevented the worst-case scenarios in Maryland, shifting the devastation to the Jersey Shore and New York. Power outages hit nearly 350,000 in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. territory, but with 700 out-of-state workers assembled, about two-thirds of the affected customers had power restored within hours of Sandy's departure.

"I expected it to be very, very bad," said Jasper Welsch, executive staff officer for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, who was on hand at Maryland emergency management headquarters Thursday, still assisting in the state's storm recovery. "Fortunately, Maryland was prepared for the worst and didn't experience the worst."

In Ocean City, where the rising waters of Assawoman Bay inundated flood-prone bayside homes and businesses, damage was considered minimal despite a near-record 7-foot storm surge. The most visible damage was the loss of about 100 feet of the resort's fishing pier.

Chaos in Crisfield

But as the floodwaters receded, it became clear that other parts of the state had been harder hit, stretching first responders' resources.

In Somerset County, emergency officials prepared for Sandy the same as for Hurricane Irene last year, with added staff, generators on hand and vehicles fueled up. But the county wasn't prepared for the heavy winds that sent floodwaters into Crisfield.

First responders rescued people from about 400 homes in Somerset, including 550 people in Crisfield, said Steven Marshall, the county's emergency services director of 20 years.

"We feel like there is a lot of apathy with evacuation," Marshall said. "This is the first time in my tenure here there was a concern we weren't getting help to all of the people who needed help, because our emergency responders were overwhelmed."

When two county road crew members stepped from their truck Monday to clear debris, a tree fell on it and totaled the vehicle. That night, crews were called in at 8 p.m. only to venture back out at daybreak.

A few hours into the storm on Monday, the roof blew off police headquarters and the city's command center had to be relocated in the driving rain.

"[They] put their lives on the line to help their neighbors," said Rex Simpkins, president of the Somerset Board of Commissioners.

Frustration in Garrett

In Garrett County, road crews are used to plowing a couple of feet of snow, but they weren't prepared to handle the weight of the wet snow that fell along the Appalachians, said Jim Raley, chairman of the county's Board of Commissioners. The sparsely populated county of about 30,000 doesn't have the staff to handle the crisis it faced.

"Crews can plow 2 to 3 feet, but they can't when the snow has knocked trees down into utility lines and don't know if it's safe to proceed or not," Raley said

At least one roof collapse was reported in the county Friday, and nearly half the residents were still without power.

Some expressed their frustration with the slow pace of recovery during a meeting Thursday with O'Malley at an Oakland shelter. Joshua Waters, a 28-year-old Army veteran who was visiting the shelter with his 6-month-old daughter, Ava, nearly broke down as he expressed what he felt was a disregard for his skill set by county officials. Waters studied geographic information systems — interactive computerized mapping — in the Army and, while working as a county intern, compiled maps for Garrett fire stations of nearby hazards and needy residents. But they were never used.

"They rolled the dice and they got a storm that showed them they were deficient," Waters said. "There wasn't enough precautionary measures taken at the county level. We've been completely dependent on the state to come in and save the day."

After the meeting, O'Malley spoke to Waters. "Maybe they'll need you now," O'Malley said, before pulling an aide over to exchange information with Waters. "We're always looking for people with GIS capabilities, whether it's out here or somewhere else."

The governor then looked over at a local mayor, pointed at Waters and said, "He's got talents that could be put to use."

Others voiced concerns about a lack of information and planning for key infrastructure. Cellphone towers used for 911 dispatch calls were being run on diesel and propane generators after they lost power, but by Thursday, no one had been able to check on fuel levels because the equipment was high in the mountains, inaccessible. Concerns about water and sewage treatment plants also were raised.

Message of preparedness

Given the unpredictability of impacts across the state, emergency officials said they have no choice but to broadcast a message of preparation as storms like Sandy approach. While some have criticized driving restrictions in Baltimore during the height of the storm, for example, the policy could have prevented the diversion of first responders from more pressing needs, Maloney said.

Messages encouraging preparedness are repeated and reinforced to free up first responders' resources as much as possible, preventing crises that could be avoided, said Barry Scanlon, president of Witt Associates, a Washington disaster-management consulting firm where Mallette previously worked.

People need to understand the risks and how they should be prepared, Scanlon said.

In California, for example, "the vast majority of people understand they're on their own for the first 72 hours" after an earthquake, he said. "It has been hammered into them since kindergarten. It doesn't happen overnight."

Officials recognize that some people might disregard future warnings if they think warnings were exaggerated, but that doesn't change the fact that Sandy could have been much more destructive in Maryland.

"You can't worry about hurting somebody's feelings or crying wolf too much," Mallette said. "These decisions are not just made off the cuff. They're thought about. They're based on the best weather information we have with us."

State and local emergency officials plan to conduct reviews of their performance during Sandy to find room for improvement. While many knew they were sure to find deficiencies, they were thankful to have been spared worse in Maryland.

In Crisfield, for example, despite the hundreds of rescues and what are expected to be major property losses, no casualties were reported.

"If you look at it knowing that you used the resources that you had ... and no one was hurt and no one was killed, it's hard to look at it right now and know anything that you would do different," Simpkins said. "Because in the end, that's your goal."

sdance@baltsun.com

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