Obviously a lot of things went very wrong during the June 29th storm, but I want to start by mentioning some things that went very right - I would like to thank my staff who joined me in our office on both Saturday and Sunday to communicate important information to residents and to open up our office to the public as an unofficial cooling center over the weekend.
I would also like to say thank you to police District Commanders, Captain Joe Hill and Captain Purvis Dawson, who did an excellent job of keeping us up to date on what the police were doing in the Springfield District and were more than helpful responding to our requests. Similarly the folks at VDOT, Dominion and NOVEC were extremely responsive to requests from the district, and I think they have done a good job considering the circumstances - I have tremendous respect for the linemen who have come from as far away as Canada and Texas to work in 100 plus degree heat in a protective suit for 16 hours a day.
I also want to thank the countless residents that went out of their way to help their neighbors in little and large ways. As I travelled the district on Saturday I saw firsthand neighbors helping clear downed trees, checking on elderly neighbors and sharing important information with those without communication.
Obviously the biggest and most critical failure was the loss of 911 services for 4 days. One thing is clear, 911 going down left many feeling abandoned and vulnerable, and Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors' meeting the Board unanimously approved my renewed call to look into 911 texting as we look to improve the 911 system. We must also look at further redundancies within our communications network. (see related article below)
It is easy to be critical of others but I think we need to take a very hard look at the County's response to the storm. I understand that circumstances were difficult with the loss of some of the County's communication infrastructure but that is the norm in most emergency situations. I believe we had failures in several areas and need to use this experience as an opportunity to improve. Some, not all areas I see room for improvement include:
Failure to open and advertise shelters. Despite the extreme heat, extended power outages and the age of many of our residents, the County did not open cooling centers. In this a potentially deadly situation where 911 was not functioning, we told our residents to go to Rec Centers and libraries, but we were unable to give them a list of the ones that were open, instead requesting that they call ahead. This was a problem for a number of reasons. First, all of our surrounding jurisdictions opened cooling centers that were being advertised by the media, leading to people asking why we were not doing the same. Second, it should not be the public's responsibility to find out which county facilities are open, we should have known which ones were open and directed them there. Third, with the phone problems we had I do not know how we can assume that those vulnerable to the heat also had access to a working phone. We need to improve our process for identifying and communicating shelter information be it for hurricanes, blizzards or whatever else Mother Nature throws at us.
Important information did not get to the public. On Saturday and Sunday when my staff and I were putting together our updates we had a hard time finding information from the County, and relied mostly on information from the power companies, our police, and VDOT. All too often in the aftermath of the storm I heard from residents saying they heard of other Counties' plans but none of our information was on the radio. I believe too much of our focus was on a blog that wasn't even given priority space on the County's website. We should have also been getting information to WTOP, WMAL and WNEW. Our elderly rely on the radio more than the internet. The Federal Government and Commonwealth as well as our own disaster preparation suggestions include a battery powered radio. Both need to be covered.
Citizen support in the storm's aftermath. I believe there are a number of areas that we need to look at in terms of support for our residents in the storm's aftermath. Three of these areas are access to bathing facilities and fresh water, provision of ice and water and assistance in the cleanup. I believe we were one of the few jurisdictions not providing ice and water to residents during the extended power outage. In addition there are hundreds if not thousands of tons of food waste and tree limbs that need to be disposed of. The County is currently directing people to visit one of the transfer stations rather than providing local support.
I was told last weekend by a representative of a power company that Hurricane Isabel in 2003 was one of the biggest learning experiences they had and that it helped to improve the way they do business. It is clear to all after this last week that there is still much work to be done, and that we should be leading the way. The Board has asked the staff to prepare an after action report. If you have any comments or suggestions or areas that should be addressed please forward them to me so I can make sure they are addressed in the report. I have included many of your suggestions as well.
We need to ensure we are better prepared for the next crisis. One thing I heard from constituents over and over was "What if this had been a terrorist attack?" It is obvious we have work to do.
Governor McDonnell Looks into 911 Problems from the Storm
We absolutely need to determine what happened and how it can be prevented in the future. I would like to thank Governor McDonnell for starting investigations that are already underway into the failures. He has organized a Subpanel of the Secure Commonwealth Panel to focus on 911 issues, which I am honored to have been asked to join.
This group will review failure issues, protocol for operating 911 centers, equipment requirements for these centers, service provider issues, and relations/communications between power companies and telecom companies.
Additionally the State Corporation Commission has also started an investigation, and as Verizon's regulator have ordered their total compliance in finding out the cause of the multiple outages in their service. Preliminary findings are scheduled for September 14, with a final report due in December.
The Board also approved a motion to participate in a COG task force on the 911 issues and the FCC has started its own investigation.