Me, EOC, and Irene

August 29th, 2011

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Many folks already view Hurricane Irene as an extraordinary exaggeration and a waste of a whole lot of worrying. While it certainly may not have left the devastation other historic storms have left in their wake, people underestimate the efforts made in their respective counties and states to ensure that things weren’t worse. As a CHHS staffer who often works with the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management, I was given the opportunity to observe these efforts first-hand while spending all of Saturday evening and the early Sunday morning hours in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

After several days of regular planning conference calls between members of its Emergency Management Group (EMG), the Montgomery County EOC was officially activated at 12:00pm on Saturday, August 27. Representatives from county agencies, including police, fire, transportation, public health, corrections, environmental protection and others were joined by municipal representatives and critical infrastructure providers, such as the primary electrical provider, Pepco. In advance of the storm’s arrival in Maryland, extraordinary efforts were made to coordinate communication and resource deployment to prepare for any number of outcomes.

As the storm arrived in the late hours of August 27, sustained winds of more than 40mph combined with gusts as high as 72mph and periods of heavy rainfall combined to make much of Montgomery County, particularly in the southeastern segment of the County, dangerous for residents. As of 11pm on Saturday evening, Pepco was reporting a mere 700 outages. By 1:30am on Sunday morning, this number grew to 17,000 and by 5am, had reached more than 75,000. Those totals speak to the extraordinary forces that the winds exerted on the utility infrastructure and surrounding trees.

While Montgomery County was more fortunate than many other Maryland counties, particularly its neighbor Prince George’s County which experienced in excess of 130,000 outages including a loss of power at its EOC, there was still plenty of response coordination that needed to occur. WebEOC, the online emergency management tool utilized by Montgomery County, served to improve situational awareness, process task requests between agencies, produce reports in advance of routinely scheduled conference calls and generally improve communications in a calm, constructive manner. The fire department was coordinating with the county’s permitting services department to arrange inspections of homes impacted by falling trees and the transportation department was coordinating messaging with the County’s 311 information line regarding Ride-On bus schedules and detours. Finally, the health department worked with Pepco to ascertain when shelter occupants could reasonably expect their power to return. These efforts represent the tip of the iceberg with regards to the communication and coordination that occurs within the EOC during an activation.

In the end, most people will conclude Irene’s threat was over-hyped because she didn’t pack the punch that many predicted. However, they need to remember that a significant portion of the reduced effects are due in large part to the extraordinary efforts of their local and state governments to mitigate the impacts on public services whenever possible.

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