Harford first responders beefed up resources during Sandy

When it came to Hurricane Sandy, the key to Harford County first responders' success in tackling the storm – besides the luck of not having it hit Harford directly – was one word: preparation.

Many hundreds of deputies, volunteers and county employees came together to get ready for the possibility of real disaster days before the storm began its track north.

"We probably started planning a little earlier," Lt. Michael Wann, commander of the Maryland State Police Bel Air Barrack, said late last week, comparing the response to that during Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee last year.

The barrack also reached out to its different sections and divisions to bring close to 200 employees on board, "definitely more" than for past storms, Wann said.

They included employees from the gang unit, auto safety unit, commercial vehicle enforcement and aviation ("obviously they weren't able to fly during the storm"), Wann said.

"The last hurricane or storm, we probably had half of that, and that was when we definitely had major power outages," he said. "The only thing we did different is we probably planned ahead a little more and reached out to some more resources."

"The majority [of problems] were definitely related to power outages, tress down," Wann said, noting 10 to 15 troopers had drawn chainsaws and were assisting other law enforcement officials in clearing roads.

Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville had sent about 15 extra troopers to Harford County on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 30-31, after the storm had passed, spokesman Greg Shipley said.

Directing traffic and trying to keep roads passable in the face of widespread outages was a major challenge.

"Obviously when you are directing traffic, in itself it's dangerous, but when you throw in hurricane wind and rain, it's obviously a little more dangerous," he said.

Working with the county's Emergency Operations Center was not especially different, Shipley said.

"The EOC has always been on top of the game. They have always been pretty good," he said. "Our biggest thing is not having enough troopers."

Water rescues were concern

Harford Emergency Manager Rick Ayers agreed his agency did not do anything especially different for Sandy.

The agency was mostly prepared to do swift-water rescues, a problem that did not materialize as serious flooding largely bypassed Harford County.

"We pretty much manage these types of events the same way," Ayres said. "Certainly we used the emergency notification system. We tried to give out a couple of messages to people before the storm got there."

"We wanted to make sure we reached those people before they lost power and tell them what to expect... and also tell people to stay off the roads and stuff. To be quite honest with you, it looks like most people did do that," he said.

"BGE almost restored all power to the county [last Friday, Nov. 2], which is pretty remarkable because it's only two days since the brunt of the storm," Ayres noted, comparing the situation to the long outages after the "derecho" storm in June.

The EOC was fully activated before the storm and all county departments were brought in to manage the event.

Staffing at the 911 center was increased from 11 or 12 people per shift to 15, he said. Everyone at the EOC worked in 12-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Traffic management in light of the power outages was a challenge for everyone, Ayres said.

"We didn't have enough law enforcement officers to put at all those intersections," he said, explaining that one of his messages reminded drivers to treat a dark traffic light as a four-way stop.

"One of the complaints we were getting was that people weren't stopping at those intersections. They were just driving straight through them," he added.

The EOC also worked with power companies to make restoration of major traffic signals a priority, Ayres said.

"I think we prepared very well for it and I think Harford County made out really well [in the storm]. It's only a couple days after the hurricane and we pretty much have Harford County up and running back to normal," Ayers said.

County forces mobilized

At least 500 county personnel from various departments were also on duty, with highways employees getting ready as early as Thursday, Oct. 25, four days before the worst of the storm hit Harford, county government spokesman Bob Thomas said.

Most of those employees were from the public works department, and the divisions of highways and water and sewer, but other departments involved included community services, human resources, risk management, administration, licensing, inspection and permits, and law.

Thomas said late last week there are no estimates yet of how much overtime was worked or how much the storm cost Harford County in general.

"On Monday [Oct. 29], when the storm was really upon Harford County, we pulled our highways personnel off the road shortly before 9 o'clock at night because it was just too hazardous. We had wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, driving rain," Thomas said. "They were back on the roads early on Tuesday, but Monday night, it was such that we had to pull them off the road. That has actually happened before; that has happened in snowstorms as well."

"The real challenge is, you are trying your best to keep the roads open but you are dealing with 60 and 70 mile-per-hour winds, driving rain, for an extended period of time, up to 48 hours," he said. "Most storms that travel through Harford County are one-day events. This began raining in the county on Sunday and we had remnants of the storm through Wednesday morning."

Regarding managing power outages, Thomas said "there was a huge issue of concern, particularly for law enforcement, because you have limited resources."

Thomas said one of the greatest frustrations was getting "perhaps a dozen" calls from residents who wanted the county to do more to restore power.

"No county government has any authority over BGE or any utility company. We cannot direct them to work in certain areas; we can only make requests," he said. "It is foolish for citizens to call the county executive and believe that he has more influence on BGE than any other elected official."

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