Ocean City Officials Learn About Keys To Storm Planning

OCEAN CITY – After a few days spent in New Orleans last
week, city officials are now back in town putting to use the knowledge and
information they gathered at the 2007 National Hurricane Conference.

The five-day event began on the April 2 and plays host to
approximately 2,000 government officials, meteorologists, emergency personnel,
rescue workers and others. The purpose of the conference is to improve
hurricane preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation in order to save
lives and lessen property damage.

This includes the showcasing of state-of-the-art programs
currently used by municipalities, speeches from well-known individuals in the
field, such as hurricane guru William Gray, about new ideas currently being
tested, and seminars and workshops on a variety of assistance programs and
other essential tools.

By doing all of this in one place, the event becomes a
type of forum where officials from all levels of government are able to
exchange ideas and experiences that will help further the improvement of
managing serious disasters, something Ocean City takes very seriously being
that its location along the mid-Atlantic region makes it so susceptible to
mother nature.

For Councilwoman Mary Knight, this was her first time
attending the National Hurricane Conference, something she said was an
educational experience. Having been in New Orleans nine years ago on business,
Knight said it definitely was not the same place.

“Besides the devastation, what struck me was the different
energy,” she said. “It just wasn’t the same kind of town, the same kind of
enthusiasm.”

Knight went on to say city officials took a three-hour
tour of some of the hardest hit areas such as the Ninth Ward and Saint
Bernard’s Parish, places where FEMA trailers still litter the landscape,
allowing officials a moment of comfort knowing that Ocean City has achieved so
much in the past 30 years with its building codes that help ensure minimal
losses during a disaster.

The most valuable thing Knight said she took away from the
trip was the fact that a long-term plan is essential, not only for surviving a
disaster, but for recovering from one, because when it comes time for receiving
aid, those with the best laid plans will have a better chance to put those
plans to use.

“One thing is we are a fiscally responsible city and we
have money on hand where as some cities live check by check and don’t have the
extra revenue when a storm hits,” she explained. “Having that money, we get the
services and help we need because we are fiscally responsible and that is
absolutely crucial.”

Councilman Jay Hancock, who attended for his third time,
said the conference provided lots of insight into what the town needs to be
aware of as it prepares for the potential of a hurricane or even the effects of
Nor’easters, something this region is familiar with as well.

“Some programs are not as strong as others but what you
get as a whole is really invaluable,” he said.

Hancock said he also noticed how some of the energy seems
gone despite the fact that some places have already rebuilt and reopened, which
gave him a bit of insight into the aftereffects of a disaster.

“They are still in the process of rebuilding their tourist
trade which is something Ocean City can learn from,” he said. “While you may be
in the recovery process, your recovery isn’t going to be necessarily rapid.”

With a weak tourist industry comes less revenues, and with
less revenues comes a lengthier recovery process, a cycle that accentuates the
importance of being a financially responsible town.

Hancock also said he took away a lot of other information
regarding establishing strong communications, taking care of essential
employees and service workers who will have to remain in the town to ensure the
safety of others, and other “food for thought that is crucial for gearing up
for a storm,” such as all of the invaluable first-hand accounts provided by
those who have already experienced these types of situations.

Another important individual for the town attending the
conference was Joe Theobald, director of emergency services.

“It gives those who have never seen the devastation an
eyewitness account for what can take place and that helps reinforce the role of
the government,” he said about having the conference in an area that is still
feeling the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Theobald said he attended a few of the workshops but the
real information came from working with those with first-hand experience.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Learning and
reinforcing what you learn and getting the information out to the public should
something take place.”

Once he has the information he needs, Theobald said his
job is to then become the teacher.

“My biggest role is educating the public and keeping them
prepared,” he said. “The sun can be shining and when we say it’s time to leave,
heed our warning because we are doing it for a reason. I’d rather the sun be
shining and we make a mistake instead of not being prepared.”

City Manager Dennis Dare, a seasoned veteran of the
National Hurricane Conference, said this year’s conference was much more
valuable since officials were given the opportunity to hear from some of the
communities that were affected by hurricanes and it provides them with a lot of
things to plan and be prepared for.

“As one of the speakers said, eliminate the word ‘if,’ with ‘when.’ Don’t say if you get hit, say when you get hit by a
hurricane,” Dare explained. “I think that’s a good attitude to have. You have
to be prepared to minimize the impact.”

The event offered city officials a chance to speak
one-on-one with emergency response agencies and similar companies, Dare said,
something that’s invaluable when it’s the lives of your residents you are
trying to protect.

One example he reported was the chance to speak to two
different companies who specialize in warning residents by automatically
calling everyone in a specified area to advise them of a coming storm. Dare
said he was able to easily compare the two to decide which would work better in
Ocean City.

“During the summer, 90 percent of the people here are
nonresidents,” he said. “It would be great if we had a way to communicate with
them better and that’s what we are working toward.”

The most important thing Dare said he learned was exactly
what Knight mentioned before, and that’s having a long-term plan with funds on
reserve to put that plan into motion.

“We’ve historically tried to keep 10 percent of our
general fund in a savings account as an emergency fund, but I’m not sure that’s
sufficient anymore,” he said.

With all the information he gathered at the conference
this year, Dare said he plans on rethinking that fund by taking into account
everything from the payroll of emergency personnel operating during a crisis to
the private contractors that will have to be hired to help with any cleanup.

“What we didn’t think about is that revenue won’t be
coming in like it was before a storm,” he said. “I intend to do some analyzing
to see if we should be looking at a larger fund balance for that response so
that it can be quicker and more complete.”

When asked if Ocean City would be prepared for a potential
disaster, all agreed they believe the town is in a good place.

Hancock said he thinks the town is pretty well prepared despite
the variables that need to be considered in a resort town. It’s during the peak
of the season, when so many fill the resort that things become complicated,
especially if the weather is pleasant just before a storm hits and people fail
to react to warnings.

“That’s going to be the biggest challenge for us initially
is getting the people to respond,” he said. “You can have the best planning and
people will turn a deaf ear to it and make the situation that much more
difficult.”

Theobald said education will be crucial but after every
year that passes, the town becomes more and more prepared.

“We’ve had a better opportunity to work with those
communities impacted and our plan is in place but it’s an ongoing process,” he
said. “Our goal this year is to get out and talk with the public to make sure
families have a plan in place as well.”

Dare said it was the Mayor and City Councils of the past
that have helped prepare the town since the 1970s by establishing a building
limit line along the beach and requiring reinforced foundations for waterfront
properties.

“There is no other community on the east coast with a
building requirement like we have,” he said.

Since these measures have been in place for so long, Dare
said the resort would suffer minimal property loss. However, property is only
one part of the equation, an insignificant part when compared with the lives of
residents.

“A
lot of things people need to be prepared for themselves,” he added.

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