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Irene, One Year Anniversary: Durham Better Prepared to Handle Emergency, Officials Say

The town has made strides to improve and streamline emergency operations following last year's tropical storm, which knocked out power to all businesses and homes.

 

As Durham's emergency management director, Francis Willett has to prepare for the worst.

So, for the better part of the past year, Willett has lead an effort to transform the third floor of Town Hall into the town's new Emergency Operations Center [EOC], a facility he says will allow town officials to more effectively manage emergencies like Tropical Storm Irene.

"We learned an incredible amount from the storms (Irene and October's nor'easter) that we had to improve on, but also just refine," Willett said. "I think, yes, we are in a better place."

One year ago today, the storm toppled trees, flooded basements and knocked out power to the town's 7,200 residents and businesses, just as kids were getting ready to head back to school.

Instead, Coginchaug High School was turned into an emergency shelter where hundreds of residents ate meals, showered and recharged their cell phones and computers while waiting for the power to come back on.

Several improvements were made in the wake of Irene and October's freak snowstorm, the most important of which was the relocation of the EOC to Durham Town Hall, which previously did not have backup generator power.

"We learned the benefit of having everything in the town hall," said Willett, whose department managed the response to Irene from the Durham Fair Medical Building — a facility designed by his father, the late Dr. Leo Willett.

By relocating the department's generator and communcations equipment to Town Hall, town officials will be able to provide uninterrupted service to residents in the event of another prolonged power outage or emergency, he said.

Town officials were recently given an opportunity to test the new EOC during a statewide drill that simulated a series of emergencies, including a storm similar to Irene.

"That exercise validated that we have the right procedures in place to get prepared for these types of known weather related events," said Willett.

While the new EOC is equipped with much of the same equipment that was used during the response to Irene, including a switchboard tied directly into Valley Shore, the town's 911 center, the third floor has been retro-fitted to accomodate "everything we need, basically," according to Willett.

The town, he said, has also been approved to join the statewide fiber optic network, which will provide a reliable internet connection in the event of an outage. The town has also taken steps to ensure that its cell towers are powered during outages.

Residents have done their part, as well.

"We saw a huge spike, this year, in generator purchases. Something like 500 to 600 residents pulled permits for permanently mounted generators," said Willett, adding that many homeowners purchased portable generators as well.

"People did a lot of tree trimming around their house. There were a lot of folks that actually took electrical wire services that were overhead and had them buried underground."

In March, the town received  from cleanup costs associated with the storm, much of which was completed by the town's Public Works Department.

"Our guys are more well versed on our protocol," said Public Works director Kurt Bober. "Before, we'd use our radio systems or guys would come back with notes and we'd have to take all of that and try to get it into some kind of form. Now through [Willet's] efforts we have [streamlined the process]."

First Selectman Laura Francis went as far as to say that the storms helped the town develop a better relationship with residents.

"We've created expectations, so now we have a public who's holding us accountable, a public that expects us to do certain things. How do I know that? I know that because when a storm happens I'll get calls," she said.

"They're looking for warming centers now, they're looking for cooling centers. They're looking for notifications from us. It helps make our public more aware."

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