Saturday, November 17, 2012

Weird Wild Weather Redux

I was going to mention the following item earlier anyway, but now I have a new and unwelcome reason to do so.  While sorting through some of my old Select Board papers this summer, I came across the October 2011 issue of The Beacon, the monthly publication of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

A piece by Robert Marinelli of the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association warning of "Dangers associated with storm cleanup" began: "Massachusetts has endured a number of significant storms in 2011 and will certainly see more adverse weather conditions before the year is over. "

Little did we know.

The piece was of course published in September, as a guide to the coming month. The destruction it referred to was thus from the summer tornadoes and Hurricane Irene. Little did we know what we would experience when "Snowtober" hit and crippled the region, leaving many of us without utilities for a week.

At the end of September 2011, I myself was still looking backward (particularly from the standpoint of historic preservation) to the summer emergencies, as well as to the so-called Great Hurricane of '38, the first major tropical cyclone to strike New England since 1869. It even (somewhat perversely, it always seemed to me) lent its name to our local high school sports teams. (I don't think we'll find any Louisiana, New York, or New Jersey varsity teams calling themselves "The Katrinas" or "The Sandys.")

But there was an earlier and even closer precedent. On 10 October 1804, a so-called "Snow Hurricane" struck the Commonwealth. It caused such widespread damage that it rendered parts of the landscape unrecognizable and, by destroying the forests, set back the shipbuilding industry by decades.)

I thought it would be interesting to mention the Beacon piece this year as a way of recalling last year's experience, but as warnings of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy mounted, it came to seem even more eerily and ironically prophetic.
 Fortunately, we in the event dodged a bullet. Damage and disruption from the storm in the town, and in our area in general (vs. even other parts of Massachusetts or Connecticut), were minimal. Still, the fact that my fellow Select Board member Diana Stein lost a tree, which, in falling, in turn caused her to lose a car, reminds us that it doesn't take much to shatter our world of comfort and complacency. And it was in large measure luck as well as geography that spared us from the fate of New York and New Jersey.

The other good news was that the Town demonstrated it had learned from last year's experience. We handled last year's emergencies relatively well but in the process also discovered areas for possible improvement. To be sure, we were not ready to install a new generator at Town Hall this October, but the emergency response team was otherwise fully prepared. Communication, including use of social media and cell phone alerts, was improved. The Department of Public Works promptly cleared roads of fallen trees. And although over 1000 customers lost power, Western Massachusetts Electric Company restored it in all cases by the next morning.

Disaster preparedness remains among the highest priorities for Town administration and government, and we were glad to be able to use this year's scare as a chance to improve response techniques in principle without having to test them in practice as people suffered.

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