Sandy tests Md. emergency preparations

Though worst avoided in Baltimore, storm battered Garrett Co., Crisfield

  • Downed wires blocked Green Street in Oakland Md. after Superstorm Sandy dumped over two feet of snow there.
Downed wires blocked Green Street in Oakland Md. after Superstorm… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 03, 2012|By Scott Dance, Kevin Rector and Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore emergency officials expected devastation on par with Hurricane Katrina. Expecting Hurricane Sandy to knock out communications, they coordinated with local radio to broadcast public safety information and planned a "carrier pigeon" network that might have relied on inflatable boats for transportation.

Helicopter rescue squads, chain-saw-toting tree climbers and thousands of National Guard troops stood ready statewide. When the storm's worst pummeled New Jersey and New York, most of those resources were sent north.

But in Garrett County, the opposite happened — a heavy, wet snow surprised local officials, crippling the power grid and blocking roads. As the severity became apparent, the county sought reinforcements, including a search-and-rescue team sent from Baltimore on Thursday. And in Crisfield, westerly winds pushed Sandy's storm surge into low-lying homes, necessitating hundreds of water rescues and overwhelming first responders.

Preparation is at the root of disaster management, and nature does not spare the unprepared, emergency officials said. As Maryland assesses its response to its most recent weather disaster, officials recognized that while the storm's wrath met or fell short of expectations in some areas, it was far more than other areas could handle alone.

Nature's capriciousness means emergency managers must strike a balance between giving sufficient warning and crying wolf.

"If the weather forecast had come out and you had told me, 'You're going to get 100 mph-plus winds and you're going to get tide surges of 6 feet,' I would have shut everything down — water, sewer, every business, and gone door-to-door and tried to scare the hell out of everybody and I would have been doing it for days," Crisfield Mayor P.J. Purnell said. "We were prepared for what we were told was coming."

Early decisions vital

Two days before Sandy arrived, the National Hurricane Center's forecasting models predicted that the storm would make landfall on the Delmarva Peninsula. Gov. Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency Friday morning, well before blustery winds and drizzle arrived as harbingers. Communities began preparations, and Maryland officials began lining up resources from outside the state.

Lead time is vital when preparing for a disaster, said Ken Mallette, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

"You have to make those decisions beforehand," he said. "If you start thinking you need something, it's too late. You needed it before you thought about it."

That meant a long wish list of specialized personnel and equipment, Mallette said. The state mustered crews of emergency managers from as far away as Texas, Mississippi, Indiana and Kansas; 4,300 National Guard soldiers along with Humvees and helicopters, chain saw crews from the U.S. Forestry Service, and swift-water rescue teams from around the country.

"I base my resource request on the worst-case scenario," Mallette said.

In Baltimore, city agencies were told to prepare for a loss of cellphone service and emergency communications systems, said Robert Maloney, the city's deputy chief for emergency management. That prompted the backup plan of broadcasting information over AM radio, and fears of massive flooding prompted the call for boats and added fire and medic units, he said.

Had the storm tracked straight into Delmarva and stalled over Baltimore, as was forecast earlier, officials expected conditions similar to those being faced in New Jersey. They prepared for heavy flooding, wind damage and rapidly spreading fires.

"Out of all the emergencies we've had, it was going to be complete and catastrophic," Maloney said.

Sandy's turn to the north prevented the worst-case scenarios in Maryland, shifting the devastation to the Jersey Shore and New York. Power outages hit nearly 350,000 in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. territory, but with 700 out-of-state workers assembled, about two-thirds of the affected customers had power restored within hours of Sandy's departure.

"I expected it to be very, very bad," said Jasper Welsch, executive staff officer for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, who was on hand at Maryland emergency management headquarters Thursday, still assisting in the state's storm recovery. "Fortunately, Maryland was prepared for the worst and didn't experience the worst."

In Ocean City, where the rising waters of Assawoman Bay inundated flood-prone bayside homes and businesses, damage was considered minimal despite a near-record 7-foot storm surge. The most visible damage was the loss of about 100 feet of the resort's fishing pier.

Chaos in Crisfield

But as the floodwaters receded, it became clear that other parts of the state had been harder hit, stretching first responders' resources.

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