April 06, 2020

Washington County officials say storm a lesson in readiness

PEMBROKE — “This should never happen again,” state Rep. Albion Goodwin, D-Pembroke, said as he reflected on the aftermath of the worst ice storm to strike this area in a century and on the lack of preparation for the disaster.

In the past few days, the storm has forced city and town officials to reflect on what they could do better next time.

A week ago Saturday, at the height of the emergency, Goodwin said he went to the county commission office in Machias and found no one there. He said he contacted the Maine Emergency Management Agency in Augusta and was told by officials to “take whatever emergency management action that was necessary for the good of Washington County.”

Goodwin recommended that it was time for the state to think about the future. He said command centers needed to be identified in each of the 16 counties and state funds allocated to fund them.

“We need at least three command centers within Washington County. We need permanently placed big generators that would be housed at schools or some shelter … with maintenance provided,” Goodwin said. “The next disaster could be a hurricane or something else.”

Goodwin said a command center was set up in Pembroke and the U.S. Navy at Winter Harbor delivered a generator to the local school.

Pembroke Principal Paula Smith laughingly said folks had renamed the elementary school the “Pembroke Plaza” because many of the classrooms had been turned into sleeping rooms for the Maine National Guard. She said volunteers prepared hundreds of meals.

Goodwin said the state also needed to ensure that all congregate housing facilities had backup generator power.

“I just feel we had a late response from the state, a late response from the county, and I feel … we need to establish some kind of a real heavy-duty plan,” Goodwin said.

Theone Look of Jonesboro, a former state representative and county commissioner, also reflected on what communities should do. For Look, the recent emergency reminded her of the community efforts during the fires of 1947 and 1966 when hundreds of thousands of acres burned. Shelters were set up then. Last week, Look helped set up the shelter at the Jonesboro Town Office.

She suggested each town inventory its resources and establish a readiness plan.

“Get an inventory of where things are and who is willing to provide them,” she said. She also said communities should have an inventory of resource people to call upon. “Like medical staff, doctors and nurses. Get all that written down,” she said. Critical to any future plan, Look said, was to get young people involved.

Machias Fire Chief John Hennessey said his Fire Department would hold a planning meeting this week. Although he said there was no written plan in place, there would be one in the future. “We will have a written disaster plan after this as long as I am fire chief,” Hennessey promised.

Perry Fire Chief Paula Frost said Saturday that communication and information were critical in any emergency. She said the Washington County Sheriff’s Department did a good job of notifying people, but she said she did not believe that was their job. “I think it is supposed to be coordinated on a different level, I don’t think that’s the Regional Communication Center’s job,” she said.

Frost said batteries in the pagers used to alert firefighters had worn down so they set up a charging system at the local store. She said a lot of homes in Perry were without telephones and firefighters had to depend upon two-way radios in their vehicles.

“I spent a lot of time in my truck. … We used those as mobile staging stations,” she said. “It was an unwritten thing that if anybody knew of one of the towns around having a fire, we just went because you didn’t know who as going to show up … and you can always use a firefighter,” she said.

In Lubec, Fire Chief John Case and Town Administrator Victoria Dyer spent time during the weekend talking about how their town could handle an emergency better. Case said that if a similar emergency should develop, they would like to use the town’s school as an emergency shelter. The town will need a generator to operate the school. “The school has showers, a large cafeteria, and it has a place to sleep everyone. We could set up an emergency medical area and a place for people to have a hot meal,” he said.

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