City reviews lessons Irene taught

Published 11:18 pm Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A tree blocks a roadway immediately after Hurricane Irene. Damages to public buildings total $387,900.

City leaders already are taking stock of their response to Hurricane Irene as they eye Tropical Storm Maria, which formed Wednesday and apparently has plans to threaten the United States.

By most accounts, things went as smoothly as possible with Irene, a storm that packed winds more than 60 miles an hour and lasted nearly 24 hours.

However, the city did learn some lessons from the storm, Assistant City Manager Patrick Roberts told City Council at their meeting Wednesday.

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Damages to city and public school property total about $387,900, Roberts reported. That includes damages to parks and recreation facilities, public buildings, water and sewer facilities, roads, bridges, culverts, traffic signals and public schools.

Roberts said the city did not anticipate the degree of flooding that occurred in the basement of the city hall building, which houses some electrical equipment for the 911 system. The pump system that normally handles the basement was overwhelmed, he said.

However, the 911 system was never threatened and continued to operate while firefighters responded, Roberts said.

Also challenging was the fact that Lakeland and Nansemond River high schools do not have full generator power.

“People were glad to have the shelter, but it does not have the generator capability we have at King’s Fork [High School],” Roberts said. “That’s a challenge.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, though not unexpected, was the flooding on North Main Street in the Kimberly area, Roberts said.

“This is almost now a perennial obstacle,” he said. “It continues to be costly.”

The city is investigating options to solve the problem. It already has contacted federal legislators about grant money that would allow the city to raise the bridge. However, it’s unclear if that would benefit business owners in the area.

In addition, Roberts said, the city needs to have permanent generator power at all of its pump stations. Currently, only critical ones — those serving police and fire stations, hospitals and shelter facilities — and all new pump stations have permanent generator power.

Councilman Curtis Milteer, who represents the Whaleyville borough, said he would have liked to see a quicker response to problems in southern Suffolk after the storm.

“The process has been very slow in those areas,” he said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson noted, however, that Suffolk is a big city that was hit by a big storm.

“There’s a lot of debris,” she said. “It can take a long time to get that help.”