Aberdeen resident Steve Collette remembers the trees that came down tearing into parts of his neighborhood on Think-of-Me Hill five years ago this week during the “Great Coastal Gale.”
But, more clearly, he remembers feeling distant from the world, not getting clear information on what was happening or when his power would be restored.
“It’s hard to get information, even on the radio,” he said in a Daily World article at the time. “I’ve heard about the weather in Alaska, but I haven’t heard anything about Grays Harbor. I can’t get on the Internet. The radio is useless. I hear they’re setting up shelters in Lewis County, but I can’t tell you what’s happening in our own hometown.”
Collette says today if the same storm would happen again, he feels a bit more prepared and he says he now has a smart phone, which he hopes, would help him get more information.
The one thing he’s learned more than anything is not to depend on anyone else.
And that’s actually the lesson most first responders hope those who went through the storm five years ago learned.
There are more power connections, improved infrastructure and better-prepared first responders. Overall, things are better compared to five years ago when the wind hit like a freight train and didn’t give up for 36 hours straight, leaving the Harbor battered, bruised and a little shell-shocked, emergency service personnel told The Daily World.
But things are not perfect. Following the December 2007 storm, there was a lot of talk about equipment needed — generators, emergency supplies and shelters. Equipment that could be used not just for when the next big storm hit, but for use in case of another disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami.
Yes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on hand helping families and local officials get money to rebuild. But there was no money for emergency supplies to prepare for the next disaster. There was, however, a big push from police and fire chiefs to have the county go to the ballot for a one-tenth of one percent sales tax increase to get those funds. But as the economy tanked, support for the sales tax dwindled.
There’s still a need for those extra funds today, Hoquiam Police Chief Jeff Myers says. But, if more sales tax money for public safety ever emerged, it’d probably go to help sustain current cash-strapped budgets.
“If we ever did a criminal-justice related sales tax, it would be needed to sustain basic police services at this point,” Myers said.
As it is, most cities have been forced to use their cash on hand to pay for things like generators. The main Aberdeen Fire Station now has a new generator and moved a portable generator to its South Aberdeen station, with hopes of one day finding money for a more permanent replacement, according to Fire Chief Tom Hubbard.
Hoquiam, too, has slowly been replacing aging generators and installing new ones in its buildings and pumps, according to Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay. Shay notes a generator at its water reservoir would help ensure drinking water continues too flow for city residents during a disaster.
In 2008, Hoquiam also purchased a used modular building and installed it on higher ground near its firing range with hopes it could be used as an emergency operations center. Power, phones and fiber were connected to the building. However, Shay says half of the building is now being leased to the state Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire response team and a full-time staff member works there now.
“If a disaster were to ever happen, though, we’d go to that building,” Shay said. “But as we’ve gone through our emergency preparedness planning, it’s possible the Little Hoquiam River Bridge could be knocked out and we may not even be able to get to the site.”
Because of that, the city of Hoquiam is also looking for another modular building they may be able to install at their cemetery. Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney has budgeted $10,000 for buying emergency supplies and there’s more money that could be tapped for infrastructure improvements, Shay said.
Both Aberdeen and Hoquiam Police departments now keep redundant servers to ensure their data and criminal files remain intact.
“For us, it was also important to print out the actual forms we use because we had grown so dependent on typing everything on the computers,” Police Chief Bob Torgerson said.
Torgerson said he became a HAM operator “so we can communicate if all of the phone systems go down.”
The Aberdeen Fire Department is still reviewing policy changes because of the recent storms.
“If there’s a severe wind storm and we have a whole lot of calls about trees coming down, we may have to stay put or prioritize the calls because we don’t want our guys hurt,” Hubbard said.
In 2008, the city of Aberdeen also put in a new road connecting Basich Boulevard to the Herbig Heights neighborhood. The connection had been delayed for years because of neighbors’ fears that it would increase traffic in that area. That it provided a second access road to Grays Harbor Community Hospital was the trump card.
Hoquiam also has a $900,000 grant to demolish, replace and expand its eastside fire station, which should also help the city, Shay noted. Myers says the city purchased a surplus panel van and turned it into a special operations vehicle, which can also be utilized in times of disaster.
“We continue to chip away at disaster preparedness a little bit at a time,” Myers said. “It’s the best we can do other than getting citizens as prepared as they can.”
“I think Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast proves that even today, it’s going to be 72 hours before anyone can get in and help the community so we really are on our own,” Hubbard adds.
Torgerson, who volunteers for the Red Cross, said he felt prepared before the storm, but has since added to his stockpile.
“When the storm happened, I couldn’t get out of my dirveway and had no capability of cutting it except with hand tools,” Torgerson said. “Almost immediately, I purchased a chain saw and generator. I haven’t needed the generator since, but I start it up every so often. I also have an ample water supply — 30 gallons of water from the Water To Go delivery service, which brings me five-gallon bottles.”
Collette says he has more bottled water and has invested in a wood stove since the December storm.
“I had a generator but not a lot of gas for it during the storm,” Collette said. “That’s a lesson I learned. I also have a battery-operated radio now. I remember going out and sitting in the car trying to listen to the radio. The landline didn’t work. The Internet didn’t work. It was truly a feeling of isolation.”
Torgerson noted that more cell towers have since been added to the area and fiber continues to be improved.
But none of that matters if the power is out.
That’s a point Comcast spokesman Walter Neary emphasized, noting that as more people have become dependent on Internet-based phone and other services, none of that can be fixed until the power is restored to an area. After the December storm, it took weeks for some members of the community to get their telephone, cable and Internet services back online.
Neary says that the company continues to improve basic infrastructure, especially after storm events.
Comcast has since established an emergency monitoring center in Everett, where the company can monitor power outages all over the region.
“We have much faster response times now,” Neary said. “And the network as a whole is more robust. … I’d say our biggest change in the past five years is our use more of social media to find out what’s happening and to provide updates to our customers.”
The Grays Harbor PUD also has more of a presence today utilizing social media to provide updates on power outages and is currently in the process of reviewing its customer response system when power goes out around the county.
One thing the PUD learned was to be aggressive in trimming trees around poles and in replacing old or faulty poles.
“We have probably replaced 1,100 poles in the five years since the storm just to try to strengthen the system back up to where we are in shape,” said PUD Engineering Manager Wes Gray.
The PUD also has better contract provisions in place to handle emergency crews and repairs, and is better equipped to deal with all the requirements of FEMA, which took years to fully reimburse the utility.
“We’ve changed some technical stuff so that we’re in compliance with what FEMA is looking for,” said PUD Assistant General Manager Doug Smith. “One of the complaints from FEMA is that we didn’t have contracts in place, and we had the crews here for too long. So we have some templates that we can use now pretty quickly to fill out a contract.”
Now and in future storms, Gray said the county and PUD have contacts in place to tie into the state’s Emergency Operations Center for assistance. For one thing, the state has access to a helicopter that can fly over affected areas to assess the damage, or it can mobilize the National Guard.
“So if we need something, we have the contacts in place now to use that as a channel to get resources or get roadblocks removed,” Gray said of the state management center.
General Manager Rick Lovely also noted the PUD was fortunate in that its System Control center was constructed in the year before the storm, which at least gave the district a modern facility in which to coordinate and monitor the response and outages.
“The control center we built the year before really proved its worth in that storm,” Lovely said.
Although he was hired two years after the 2007 storm, Chuck Wallace, deputy director of Grays Harbor County Emergency Management, said there have been several significant developments to aid in response capability and communications during a serious weather event.
The biggest improvement, he said, is the new Doppler Radar near Copalis Beach, which “gives us on-the-spot rainfall amounts and really tracks the storm, where we never had anything before.”
“It doesn’t keep the storms from a arriving, but it does give us a lot more information once they do start approaching so we can direct resources,” Wallace said.
Since the 2007 storm, the county also has improved its network of communication.
“Our new system now allows us to text or give a phone call or e-mail, but it also allows us to make smaller groups to send out messages to the public works officials or to the mayors, the police, fire and response agencies,” Wallace said. “We try to keep those messages up very frequently when we are in bad storms.”
Last winter, the county’s experience responding to an ice and snow storm marked the first significant storm response aided by the Doppler, and “that worked out very well.”
Wallace said he also has been successful in getting more citizens equipped with all-hazard weather radios.
“We’re trying to educate people and give them as much education as possible about their site-specific problems. And it’s not just about where they live, it’s where they go to work, where their children’s schools are, and where they shop because incidents could occur wherever you are,” Wallace said.
Despite such improvements, Wallace notes his office now has just one person in it, compared to three positions in 2007, and that most communities have fewer police and fire position than in 2007, along with fewer volunteers and resources. And the job of convincing the public to stay prepared is not an easy one after memory of the storm begins to fade, he adds.
“As time goes on, that spike in preparedness seems to settle back down again,” Wallace said, issuing an appeal for residents to become more involved at all levels.
“If we had the same type of storm that we had in 2007, it might impact us even greater today than it did in the past,” he warned. “… Get involved some way, somehow, because not only will that benefit other people, it will benefit you when something else happens. Everybody wants to avoid the issue, but you could lay down in bed tonight and two seconds later, here it is.”