Report Confirms Worcester Prepared, Lucky With Irene

SNOW HILL — It was a combination of luck and preparation that helped Worcester County dodge the worst of Irene, according to county officials.

While the storm had much less of an impact than anticipated, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed that given identical circumstances in the future, they would repeat the same decisions made with Irene, even tough ones like the evacuation of a portion of West Ocean City and other low-lying areas..

“By all rights, we should have been directly impacted,” said Emergency Services Director Teresa Owens.

When Hurricane Irene roared up the coast at the end of last month, it generated a controlled panic on the Eastern Shore. Officials at both the local and state level warned residents to prepare for the storm and eventually made mandatory evacuations of several areas, including Ocean City. Shutting the resort down during one of the last big weekends in the tourist season cost the town approximately $2 million, according to Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

The decision to evacuate Ocean City was made by Mayor Rick Meehan, but the commissioners stood by that decision to evacuate as well as their own decisions regarding West Ocean City and to power down West Ocean City sewer service, stressing the importance of safety over profit. Given how bad Irene could have been, and how hard it hit other areas, the commissioners also agreed that they wouldn’t hesitate to evacuate again if they felt lives were in danger.

“If we had this forecasted again, we’d do it [evacuate] again,” Commissioner Madison Bunting said.

“Nobody likes to mess with Mother Nature,” agreed Commissioner Judy Boggs.

However, Boggs was worried that the relative mildness of Irene might make some people complacent in the face of future storms. In a case of crying wolf, she explained that because the hurricane didn’t live up to the concern generated by its forecast, the next mandatory evacuation may convince fewer people to flee.

Owens didn’t share Boggs’ fear. In fact, she felt that the danger of Irene and the subsequent evacuation was treated with more respect than any other emergency in her memory.

“People took it more seriously this time than they ever have,” she said.

Owens predicated that level of civilian and governmental cooperation to carry over to the next major storm.

“If you’re told to leave, leave,” said Bunting.

The evacuations were only part of the county’s response to Irene. Response teams were organized, four shelters were opened, and alerts were sent out using Worcester’s “reverse 911” system.

“It’s a very valuable tool,” said Owens of reverse 911.

The county uses the system to contact residents via landline to inform them of evacuation notices and other emergency details. According to Owens, every department in the county was on its A-game in preparation for Irene. Commissioner Virgil Shockley agreed.

“We were ready,” he said.

“Everyone did the right thing,” added Commission President Bud Church.

Church noted that concern over Irene went well beyond being just a local issue.

“The support came from the top,” said Church, revealing that Governor Martin O’Malley contacted him multiple times, before and after the storm, offering to provide any services the county might need.

Owens pointed out that other counties and state agencies had also been willing to aide Worcester during Irene.

However, a mix-up caused the State Health Department to erroneously believe that Worcester suffered a shortage of ambulances when the storm hit.  There was no such scarcity, said Owens, but her office still received multiple calls from other counties offering to lend Worcester ambulances. Luckily, there were only 29 ambulance calls and 31 fire responses during Irene, typical numbers for an August weekend according to Owens, and Worcester did not need to borrow emergency vehicles from any other counties.

She added that even private entities helped the county prepare for Irene, noting that the Wal-Mart located in Berlin donated two pallets of bottled-water to the emergency shelters that had been set up in area schools.

Though the county was at full alert for Irene, Owens admitted that luck played more than a small part in lessening the storm’s impact on the Eastern Shore. First making landfall in North Carolina, said Owens, zapped a lot of the energy from Irene before it even reached Maryland. Additionally, a dry pocket of air that interacted with the hurricane when it did finally hit Worcester significantly reduced rainfall.

“We received 8 inches instead of [the estimated] 12 inches,” confirmed Owens.

Finally, Irene came to shore on a low-tide, instead of high-tide as most had forecast, cutting down on storm surge and flooding by a significant degree, according to Owens.