Crises demand better communication

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 12, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

&uot;Communication, communication, communication.&uot;

That – or rather, the lack thereof – appears to be a strong contributing factor to the state and federal governments’ frequent bungling of Hampton Roads localities’ requests for emergency aid after Hurricane Isabel, said 2nd District Rep. Ed Schrock of Virginia Beach.

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He and fellow lawmakers U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd District, and U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-4th District, appeared Friday at congressional field hearings in Norfolk and Chesapeake. U.S. Rep. Tom Davis and Forbes, chairman and member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, called for the assessment of the state and federal governments’ response to the storm.

The devastating Sept. 18 storm left much of southeastern and central Virginia without power for days and has caused damages totaling an estimated $715 million to date.

Several witnesses, including City Manager Steve Herbert, as well as officials representing Chesapeake and Isle of Wight and Dinwiddie counties, reported that the lack of response or misinformation that trickled down from the state and federal level prompted them to give up on their emergency assistance requests. Instead, they said, their respective localities frequently ended up finding and buying supplies of water, ice and generators, especially in first three or fours days after Isabel.

City and county officials told the committee how their requests seemed to get lost in the paperwork flowing into the Virginia’s Emergency Operations Center in Richmond. Both state agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated the disaster response efforts from there.

Chesapeake Fire Chief Steve Best said it took his city three days to receive a reliable source of water. He also said it took twice that long to obtain ice, and then only after the city purchased it privately for $55,000.

&uot;We were initially told to expect our first shipment of ice from FEMA on Sunday the 21st,&uot; Best said. &uot;On Tuesday morning, we were notified we would not receive ice until Wednesday because Chesapeake’s ice had been diverted to another jurisdiction on the Peninsula. At that point, we were so frustrated … we too resorted to acquiring our own ice, and found a contractor in Florida. Our first shipment arrived within 16 hours – from the state of Florida.&uot;

Desperate to power sewage pumping stations and prevent waste from overflowing into streets and streams, Suffolk made its first appeals to the state EOC for generators as early as Thursday afternoon, Herbert said. By Friday night, neither the state nor FEMA could even verify that Suffolk’s request had been received, he said.

At that point, the city took matters into its own hands. Over the weekend, the city’s finance director managed to find 16 generators in Kentucky and have them delivered by Monday. It was Tuesday before FEMA notified Suffolk officials that it had had rejected the city’s request for generators.

IT was 10 days after the hurricane before Chesapeake, who also filed formal requests for generators through the state EOC on the day of the storm, received its equipment, Best said.

The next day, a federal official contacted the city to request the generators be returned. The city’s response, he said, was that they &uot;would not be available&uot; until power was restored.

Forbes questioned the state’s timeliness in filing paperwork FEMA needed to begin distributing storm relief supplies.

Eric Tolbert, director of response division of FEMA, told the panel that his first request from the state came on Monday, four days after Isabel struck.

However, Virginia Public Safety Secretary John Marshall disagreed, saying he had records proving that Virginia sent FEMA at least seven written requests by Saturday, the first filed at 5:39 a.m. on Friday.

Tolbert also contrasted Virginia’s often-chaotic response to the hurricane with North Carolina’s swift and smooth response.

&uot;North Carolina, which frequently deals with hurricanes far more severe than Isabel, has permanent warehouses of emergency relief supplies constantly stocked and ready in strategic areas of that state,&uot; he said.

Davis conceded that North Carolina’s response had been more efficient. But he also stressed the need to find answers for the problems that arose in Virginia during Isabel’s aftermath.

&uot;This is the first time Virginia has been through something of this magnitude,&uot; he said. &uot;North Carolina has had several of these, and they had a much smoother operation. We need to have a candid conversation about where we succeeded and where we failed and make sure we don’t fail next time.&uot;

Gov. Mark Warner is also following up with evaluations of state and local handling of Isabel. On Friday, he appointed a three-person panel to assess states and local preparations and responses to Isabel.

The panel will interview federal, state and local officials, along with state agency staffs, voluntary relief organizations and members of the business community.

The report is scheduled to be submitted to Warner by the end of November. The findings will be made public.

He said the independent review would allow officials to find solutions for things that did not go well.

&uot;Clearly, our experience with Isabel helped identify opportunities to improve our communication and logistical capabilities for all levels of government, and with certain aspects of the private sector,&uot; Warner said.

Bob Herbert, retired Roanoke city manager, will chair the group. Also serving on the panel will be Bath County Administrator Claire Collins and Bill Rowland, retired deputy director of the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.