Howard County leaders meet to discuss Hurricane Irene strategy

They call it the "policy room," and at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26, it was filled with about 25 of Howard County's top officials and emergency management personnel, all gathered to discuss the county's preparations for Hurricane Irene.

Another dozen or so top officials from other county departments, and from such institutions as Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College and the Columbia Association, were dialed in on a conference line.

Through a wall of windows was the "situation room," complete with four rows of computers and five large screens feeding live news coverage and meteorological information of the storm.

One day before Irene was expected to reach the county, bringing heavy winds and intense rainfall, the atmosphere within the county's emergency operations center in Ellicott City – which was relocated and enhanced about eight months ago – was friendly and light.

"Who would have thought we would have an earthquake in the same week as we're dealing with a hurricane?" asked County Executive Ken Ulman shortly after taking his seat at the head of the table.

But when it came to outlining the county's preparations for the storm, such as the number of shelters available to open, or the resources in place to deal with flooding in low-lying areas, or the number of police officers on call, it was all business.

"Let's tackle another disaster as best we can for the residents of Howard County," Ulman said to those in the room, known as his Emergency Management Advisory Group.

Some of the administrators in the room looked tired. The emergency personnel in the room – the center's staffers who "live for this stuff," as Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director William Goddard put it – seemed excited.

But everyone was engaged, and seemed prepared, as Ulman went around the room one-by-one, asking for status reports from public works, corrections, inspections, human services, police, fire, parks and recreation, health, and so on.

To start, Ulman asked for an "overall weather update," and Tom McNeal, one of the emergency center's three managers – and one of the people who seemed excited – stepped up to the table.

As it turns out, McNeal was one of three state employees who got to attend the National Hurricane Center's yearly hurricane training seminar in Miami in February. McNeal is not a meteorologist, but because of his training, he knows how to interpret meteorological information regarding hurricanes, he said.

Howard County, McNeal said, can expect sustained winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, and gusts of up to 65 miles per hour. The county is currently in a "weird kind of cusp" in terms of the amount of rain it might get – it could get one to four inches, or it could get 10 inches. With already saturated soil in the area, either result may cause flooding, he said.

Ulman, with his sleeves rolled up and an iPad in front of him, jumped in and asked whether there is a "key tipping point" in the next 24 hours when information will become more reliable, less speculative.

McNeal said the closer the storm gets, the better the information will be. But storms are largely unpredictable.

That upside-down, tear-shaped trajectory of the storm you see on TV, for example? It's just a prediction, McNeal warned.

"Everything to the left of that cone is still in play for the eye of the hurricane," he said.

Regardless of early predictions, McNeal said it was wise to expect a heavy pounding.

"You see how big this sucker is – it's big," he said.

Jim Irvin, director of the county's Department of Public Works, said his department is gearing up for tree removal and flooded storm drains. He also said a water main break on Route 40 earlier Friday had closed a main water line, which caught Ulman's attention.

"It should not be a problem, unless we lose another line," Irvin said.

Goddard said the fire department is expecting strong support from their volunteer firefighters.

Maj. Gary Gardner, deputy chief of county police, said the Police Department will have up to 10 extra officers covering the streets during the weekend and two strike force teams ready for rapid response needs. There will also be an aviation team available to survey damage Sunday.

Lt. Dan Truitt, commander of the state police's Waterloo Barrack, said state police has Medevac and "hoist recoveries" teams standing by.

Peter Beilenson, the county's health officer who was on the conference line, said his department has nurses on call.

Representatives of the county school system, Howard Community College and the Columbia Association said their properties had been secured, including the CA's various outdoor pools.

"How many lawn and pool chairs is that?" Ulman asked with a laugh.

However many there are, he was told, they have all been secured.

When Jack Kavanaugh, director of the Department of Corrections, gave a rundown of preparations at the county detention center, Ulman quipped, "Keep people locked up."

Kavanaugh responded, "We intend to do that."

Ken Shaw, security director at Howard County General Hospital, said the hospital has three or four days worth of pharmaceutical stores, and is currently at 75 to 80 percent occupancy.

"We're relatively full," he said. "If we get an influx of patients over the weekend, it may be an issue."

Ulman repeatedly told department heads and others calling in, like Shaw, to keep him informed of their needs as the weekend progressed.

Ray Wacks, administrator of the county's budget office, reminded everyone to keep tabs on hurricane-related expenses.

"In case this becomes a reimbursable disaster, we want to have good records," he said, making note of the fact that state or federal dollars are sometimes given to jurisdictions hit by natural disasters.

"Just stay flexible through the weekend," Ulman said at the end of the meeting. "We get through these things better than most because of our cooperation, and this will be another example of that."

As to whether the county will declare its own state of emergency, that will be decided Saturday, Ulman said.

"We don't want to do that if we find out this thing takes a hard right turn, which is what we're all hoping for," he said.

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