Hurricane Irene is Coming to Town

Submitted By

Patrick Holland, MPA
Richmond City Health District, Virginia
June 23, 2014

In August 2011, Richmond City Health District in Virginia was implementing new plans about how the local health department supports local shelter operations because Hurricane Irene was coming to town. We had been, and still are, refining the health department’s role in shelter support as we incorporate behavioral health planning and attention to specific medical needs.

On August 27, 2011, a Saturday afternoon, I was in the City’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for a full augmentation. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, the City of Richmond opened two shelters, one in the northern part of the city, and the other in the southern. Since the James River divides Richmond in half, we must have capabilities that are autonomous both north and south of the river in case wind speeds prevent use of the various bridges. I had mostly clinical staff and Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) volunteers at both shelter locations that were open. Historically we don’t have a lot of folks show up to our shelters, and many of the Department of Social Services (DSS) staff were not fully trained in all emergency shelter operations given that they have not had to shelter massive numbers of people previously. During Hurricane Irene, we had approximately 40 shelterees and 10 staff members present at the southern shelter. At around 1800 hours that evening, I received a voicemail from one of the nurses at the shelter who called to say that “they had no lights.” I walked across the room to talk to my schools and social services representatives and they both assured me the shelter had plenty of lights since they assumed the shelter’s generator would work. I texted that nurse to tell them that DSS was on it and to circle back with me in an hour if nothing had changed. She called me back an hour later to tell me it was pitch dark and everyone was a little edgy. One of my good friends, the deputy coordinator of the City of Richmond’s Office of Emergency Management, suggested we take the 15 minute ride over to the shelter and inspect it first-hand, although weather conditions made driving rather dangerous. What should have been a 15 minute ride turned into a 30 minute drive because of the weather. Once we arrived, we quickly noticed there was no power indeed. It was pitch black inside the 50-year-old gymnasium and you could barely see your hand in front of you. Naturally most everyone was on edge.

We quickly found out that the generator was working quite efficiently at powering the locker room showers but was not wired to power anything else. This was a major oversight on behalf of those who tested the generators. My friend talked to his boss, the Emergency Management Coordinator, and the decision was made to move everyone and all equipment to the northern shelter in the driving rain from the hurricane. We coordinated the evacuation through the EOC and the Greater Richmond Transit Company, which was successful thanks to our excellent relationship prior to this incident. In addition to transporting the individuals from the shelter, the City of Richmond has an arrangement with the Greater Richmond Transit Company to transport individuals to the shelter if they were waiting at any bus stop.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to wake up a homeless person and tell them you are taking away their cot but I have, probably 20 times that evening, and you all should try it sometime. We packed up the trailer in the rain and hitched it to the Emergency Management vehicle. Everything I had on was soaked--the rain jacket I had on was utterly useless. I got to ride with all of the shelterees on the bus as representative from Emergency Management to assist the driver in case something went wrong. The shelterees were all homeless individuals and they were the nicest folks you could ask for. I think it is because we, the city as a whole, demonstrated that we cared for them and wanted to see them in a safe environment. We had to take the long way to the other shelter because of downed trees on the road, and it was pretty perilous crossing the James River to the other side. We finally arrived at the northern shelter and things settled down. No one was using durable medical equipment or had any special needs at the time.

We’ve improved our capabilities quite a bit since this incident. My relationships with my co-workers and local agency counterparts helped get the job done and solved the unexpected challenges that arose in the response to Hurricane Irene. All of the graphics, layouts, detailed plans, and bells and whistles cannot be substituted for the sheer grit and emotional intelligence needed in responding to a real incident. As I always tell my team, your assignment today may not be your assignment in an emergency. You may just have to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that certainly was the case during Hurricane Irene. We’ve revised our plans twice since Hurricane Irene, incorporating lessons learned from a winter storm and Hurricane Sandy. We are constantly reviewing and tweaking small things. We’ve included two new training modules for clinical staff and MRC members, and added additional communications capabilities, such as 800 Mhz radios. Also, the City now has two backup shelters on each side of the river, with generators, additional supplies, and equipment. Additionally, we developed a kind of tele-triage to use in an emergency. We have to time the start time of our staff so they will not be changing shifts or driving in the midst of bad weather. Also, we have to continue to perform the health district’s mission essential functions even if the shelters are still open. The tele-triage would be used prior to the arrival of our staff and once the absence of need dictates we demobilize our staff. As a final take home from this incident, when you are told that the generator was tested that day and everything works fine, always ask what exactly has it been wired to support, and always keep a change of dry clothes in the car.

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