Monday, July 16, 2007

Money, will lacking to shore up emergency preparedness for big storms, flooding ….Have local communities [in Massachussetts] prepared for a large-scale natural disaster?

In 2004, the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District created a committee comprising representatives from the region’s 27 cities and towns to develop a pre-disaster mitigation plan that made sense for the region.

While the state requires that every town has basic hazard plans – evacuation routes, shelters and communication strategies – but the committee determined most communities faced two major obstacles for undertaking more comprehensive, pre-disaster plans: complacency and lack of resources.

With population growth in Southeastern Massachusetts outpacing the state average, many new residents flocking to the coast were not informed about or prepared for major hurricanes, the group concluded. Nor are they prepared for the additional risks posed by global warming, said Steve Smith, executive director of SRPEDD.

“There’s a lot of adjustment needed in people’s thinking about this problem,” said Mr. Smith. “We’re at the stage of problem recognition, but not yet at the stage of reacting to it and planning for it, and we’ve got a lot to do.”

Residents aren’t the only ones who are unprepared, says Mary Ellen DeFrias, who chaired the committee and now volunteers as an emergency management planner for Dartmouth.

Most small coastal towns at high risk of storm damage and flooding have yet to implement the pre-disaster plan, which includes incorporating disaster mitigation measures into local open space, transportation and master plans. The pre-disaster plan also addresses the need for better communication and education, not only among residents, but among local, state and federal officials.

Emergency management officials fear that people have forgotten the lessons of those storms, lulled into a false sense of security that it won’t happen again.

In fact, experts predict that the region will see more storms with that kind of destructive force.

…Whether or not current knowledge of climate change allows for predicting the timing and intensity of future storms, there is ample reason for the flood-prone SouthCoast and Cape to prepare now for their own version of Hurricane Katrina, said S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Woods Hole Science Center.

“I’d pay close attention about what happened in New Orleans, because while the likelihood of a Category 5 storm coming here is not great, a Category 3 or 4 certainly is in the realm of possibility, and if it came up Narragansett or Buzzards Bay, it would have tremendous impact,” he said. “As ill-prepared as New Orleans was, they were better prepared, I’d contend, than what I expect the Southeastern New England coast is prepared for.”

A National Weather Service report posted on its Taunton forecast office Web site states that “tremendous buildup in property and general infrastructure along the coast since the mid-1950s presents a very high risk for loss of life and property.”

…“Even without taking into account global warming, there’s a very severe risk from hurricanes that run on a particular track such that storm surges would come up into the bay,” said Richard Zingarelli, a board member of the state Coastal Hazards Commission. The commission was established as part of the state’s Coastal Zone Management department by former Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration last year to assess coastal vulnerabilities associated with storms, erosion and sea level rise.

…So far, however, few Southcoast communities are factoring global warming into either their emergency preparedness plans or future development strategies. This concerns members of the Coastal Hazards Commission, who have identified flooding and erosion as serious concerns, linking them to sea level rise and climate change.

…It’s not that town officials are unconcerned, said Mary Ellen DeFrias, a volunteer emergency management planner for Dartmouth who previously was chair of SRPEDD’s disaster planning committee. But it’s hard to justify allocating scarce resources to preparing for the natural disasters when basic services, like schools and law enforcement, are in jeopardy.

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