SNOW HILL — Hurricane season does not begin until June, but the Worcester County Planning Commission still asked to be briefed on the county’s disaster response plans last week.
Specifically, the policies Worcester has in place were compared to nearby Somerset County, which was the hardest hit part of the Eastern Shore during Hurricane Irene. According to Director of Development Review and Permitting Ed Tudor, Worcester is in a good spot with its post-emergency follow-up.
“We do a lot here in Worcester County from a preparatory standpoint,” he told the commission.
County Technical Services Manager Kelly Henry further briefed the commission on the county’s role in preparing for and addressing any disaster, including weather events and acts of terrorism. Hurricanes, said Henry, are obviously the most common emergency faced by Worcester due to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and low-lying coastal properties.
“We’re kind of in a high-risk area,” she admitted.
However, in the event of an emergency scenario, the county has teams ready to assess damage immediately.
“Windshield surveys,” are the first step and involve splitting the county into sectors which are divvied up amongst members of Tudor’s department. Those employees work in pairs and conduct drive-by damage assessments as soon as it is safe to be out. Follow-up assessments can be made for a more accurate tally of damage afterwards, though the windshield surveys are useful in quickly estimating damage after an event and giving the Maryland Environmental Management Agency (MEMA) and their federal counterpart (FEMA) a rough idea of what they will find in the county.
According to Tudor, Henry has the organization of county resources “down to a science” in the event of a disaster.
“We start days ahead of time,” said Tudor.
All county assessment forms are based on MEMA standards, added Henry, and employees are trained to record a number of details including building type, area, level of damage, and type of damage.
The significant preparatory work conducted by the county makes it easy for MEMA and FEMA to hit the ground running when they arrive, Henry explained, and can lead to property owners seeing assistance faster. The commission praised Tudor, Henry and their co-workers for their high level of organization. They also asked for a comparison between Worcester and Somerset. Somerset, especially the city of Crisfield, was hit hardest by Sandy in October and is still recovering in many ways.
Tudor admitted that there were serious organizational issues with the response by that county.
“There really was little preparation,” he said. “When we got there, they didn’t even have maps, there were no maps available.”
Worcester was one of several counties tapped to help Somerset in the wake of Sandy. Damage re-assessment, said Tudor, was the majority of their job.
“There was a considerable amount of things that were under-reported … There were certain areas that nobody had been to yet,” he said.
Storm damage being improperly assessed can cause serious headaches since state and federal financial assistance usually only kicks in after a certain amount of damage has occurred. By under-reporting the extent damage, Tudor said that Somerset made it much more difficult to qualify for those funds.
“It was just so unfortunate that there was no organization to it at all,” he said. “Again, a lot of it is resources. They don’t have the resources locally to do what we do.”
Besides organizational issues with disaster damage assessments on the county and municipal levels, Tudor added that a lot of residents in Somerset were surprisingly combative when asked to cooperate in the assessment process.
“There were a number of places as well that we were not welcome,” he said. “We’d go up and knock on the door and we were told to either get off of the property or they didn’t answer the door at all. We could see people sitting inside but they didn’t want anybody there.”
In some cases, Tudor said that residents they visited were “absolutely hostile” for no obvious reason. In other cases, people cooperated but chose not to report or to under-report their damages because they didn’t want any disaster assistance. Failing to report damage hurts the county’s overall numbers and potentially cost their neighbors additional financial relief.
Tudor chalked much of it up to the “independent spirit” of the area. Planning Commissioner Betty Smith, who often visits Crisfield, reminded the commission that people in the area are not predisposed to trust agencies like MEMA or FEMA and are so used to flooding that they underestimated the dangers of Sandy.
“They are stubborn, they won’t move,” she admitted.
Smith defended residents of the county, pointing out that the disaster was “so overwhelming” and that things are steadily improving.