2017-11-02 / Front Page

Preparation Key to Storm Readiness

By Brooke Constance White

The following story is the second installment in Newport This Week’s coverage of disaster preparedness on Aquidneck Island.

Mark Twain’s phrase, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes,” was coined for a reason. Anyone who lives on Aquidneck Island knows that a few innocent flurries can turn into a blizzard, and light winds can quickly become strong, causing extensive power outages. On the other hand, these warning signs could also end up being false alarms.

For Middletown’s Acting Emergency Management Director Timothy Beck, the most important part of storm readiness is being prepared for anything that can happen. And his team is ready, with systems and processes in place to handle whatever Mother Nature sends our way, whether it’s flooding, erosion, storm surge, blizzard or hurricane.

Because the bridges to Aquidneck Island can close during severe weather, it’s important that the island’s communities are self-sufficient. Rhode Island state police and the National Guard might not be able to reach the island for several days. The Middletown Police Department has already switched to all-wheel drive vehicles, and the fire department will be getting new 4-wheel drive rescue vehicles in the coming months so they can get around the island during a blizzard or flood, and can transport nurses and doctors to work if necessary.

How Middletown prepares for a natural disaster

Anytime there’s a forecasted weather event that warrants emergency management getting involved, Beck, who’s a lieutenant with the Middletown Police Department, meets with the town’s administrators and department heads to ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities.

Each department decides how many personnel it will need on duty and makes a plan to ensure the necessary staff can get to their posts. If they live off of Aquidneck Island and there’s a chance the Newport Bridge could be closed, Beck said they make sure staff get to the island before that happens and have a place to sleep if the bridge is still closed when their shift ends.

“During our meeting, we sit down and discuss what needs to be done to prepare and what will be done throughout the event,” Beck said. “At that point, updates go out through our CodeRED system, Facebook and the town website.”

The CodeRED community notification system enables the town to quickly provide essential information in a variety of situations, such as severe weather, fires, floods or neighborhood evacuations.

Volunteers from the Aquidneck Island Emergency Volunteer Alliance (AIEVA) are called upon to staff the Gaudet School regional shelter if residents are displaced from their homes or lose electricity.

How you can prepare

Being informed is the best way for residents to be prepared, according to Middletown’s Interim Fire Chief Rob McCall.

One can’t be too prepared, Mc- Call added, even if a storm that is forecast to be dangerous winds up missing the island. “You just never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We have to be prepared even if we think it might not be that significant.”

Aside from being ready with a supply of food and water, Beck and McCall recommend residents make sure that they can be self-sufficient for several days, especially those on oxygen tanks or needing medications.

Hurricane season isn’t officially over until the end of November, and while it’s been warm, McCall said, snow could arrive sooner than we think. While losing power in a hurricane or tropical storm is inconvenient and potentially dangerous, losing electricity in a blizzard can be especially hazardous due to factors like loss of heat and hot water.

“When it’s 20 degrees outside and you lose power, you lose heat, too,” McCall said, “which adds another dimension to dealing with an emergency.”

During such occurrences, the Middletown Senior Center and the library are used as warming centers. McCall said his team stresses the importance of not heating your home during a power outage by resorting to things that aren’t meant to be used as fuel, such as gas stoves or candles. And always keep generators away from the house, he added.

Elizabeth McDonald, senior director for emergency services for Red Cross Rhode Island, said she recommends residents have a disaster plan and an emergency supply kit with cash, non-perishable goods and medications, among other supplies. They should also have a communications plan with someone inside and outside the state, she said.

Children need to be aware of disasters as well, she said, and parents should ensure kids know where emergency exits are and what the disaster plan entails. McDonald also suggested that anyone with a chronic condition, disability or special healthcare need should sign up for the Rhode Island Special Needs Registry so that first responders are able to appropriately plan for and respond to the needs of the community. If the individual cannot complete the enrollment, a family member, caregiver or authorized representative can register them.

“It’s important to know what your emergency management will do and what processes they have in place,” McDonald said. “Something else that many people forget is having a plan for your pets as most shelters don’t take animals [during natural disasters].”

How to help your community

Carmella Geer, volunteer coordinator for the Aquidneck Island Emergency Volunteer Alliance (AIEVA) and shelter manager of the Gaudet School regional shelter, said that human capital is always needed when there’s a natural disaster because volunteer forces constantly ebb and flow, depending on the season.

Thankfully, she said, Rhode Island usually gets a three- to four-day lead time before a big weather event, but volunteer groups need people willing to answer the call when that day comes.

“Although most people think that volunteers need to be able to do the work of a first responder, really a volunteer can do anything,” Geer said. “Human contact and the ability to organize and follow direction are the most important skills a volunteer can have.”

In the event that volunteers can’t get to the shelter, Geer said police will transport them to the Gaudet School.

The Gaudet School regional shelter can operate on a number of different levels depending on the severity of the natural disaster, according to Geer. It can be a comfort station where folks can plug in cell phones and other electronic devices. It can also be a traditional shelter, which typically happens during a blizzard when people can’t be at home due to frigid temperatures, snow and wind.

On Nov. 14 the Rhode Island Red Cross is hosting an introductory training at 4 p.m. and a shelter fundamentals training at 6 p.m. at the Edward King House in Newport. There will be a pizza supper for volunteers who would like to attend both. The two trainings are open to anyone interested in supporting the regional shelter in the event of an emergency.

Sign up for the Code Red notification through the town’s website, middletownri.com, and find out more about the Aquidneck Island Emergency Volunteer Alliance at aieva.org.

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