County to discuss natural disaster emergency plans

Series of forums scheduled to focus on preparedness


Mother Nature has made her presence felt this year in Anne Arundel County. Storms in February dropped 2 feet of snow, cutting power to thousands of homes. Heavy rain last month forced the closure of roads and a sewage treatment plant.

As part of their effort to help people prepare for such emergencies, county officials have scheduled a series of forums throughout the county, beginning tonight at the South County Senior Center.

"One of the lessons we have learned ... in a disaster: We need to partner with members of the community," said County Executive Janet S. Owens. "The more we can help members of the community come up with a plan for their families and their local community, the more government can work in partnership with them."

The county's emergency operations staff and the Office of Community Services have organized the two-hour meetings to be held over the next two weeks in Edgewater, Annapolis, Laurel and Pasadena.

Officials from the Health Department and Animal Control, building inspectors and others will be on hand to answer questions.

Each of the meetings will be tailored for disasters that could strike in their area. For example, representatives of communities hard-hit by Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003 are to speak in Edgewater tonight about what they learned from the storm, and how some neighborhoods have created teams of community volunteers to inform residents about the scope and nature of a disaster.

"It's important that residents know what we can and can't do," said James D. Weed, director of the Office of Emergency Management. "Everything is event-driven."

Weed noted that with the hurricane season here, "this is the right time of year [to hold these meetings] because it's going to stick in their minds."

Bea Poulin, one of Owens' community specialists, said that knowing who has a car with four-wheel drive, a chain saw to cut trees or medical training can make a difference when public safety and public works crews can't respond.

"We have learned so much from Isabel," said Poulin, who serves South County and the greater Crofton area. "We are building on that experience." But she also noted: "We still see people not as prepared as we would want them to be."

In recent months, the county has been tested by heavy snow and rain, opening emergency shelters, performing water rescues and transporting elderly and sick residents for medical care.

Under Owens, the county has invested millions to upgrade communications systems to keep public safety officials coordinated and to notify communities of their progress in the event of a disaster.

But Owens noted that a major disaster could hinder the government's response for days.

"Remember the rule of thumb," Owens said. "Anne Arundel County could be alone for up to 72 hours."

Other meetings will be held tomorrow at Hillsmere Elementary School in Annapolis, next Wednesday at the Maryland City Fire Hall in Laurel and Aug. 3 at Jacobsville Elementary School in Pasadena. All meetings will begin at 7 p.m. For more information, call 410-222-8040.

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