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Lessons learned from Irene convinced people to prepare

November 2, 2012

Special to the Standard

Exeter’s emergency preparedness Stefan Coutoulakis is crediting the lessons of Tropical Storm Irene with his community’s willingness to thoroughly prepare for Hurricane Sandy.
“There was heightened awareness,” he says. “Irene brought it to light. Nobody knew how to prepare or what to be aware of.” For this storm, as Coutoulakis constantly updated residents of Sandy’s approach and directed them to the availability of local services, residents seemed to follow his recommendations.
Last year was a different story. As he drove to the area’s trailer parks, rather than accepting his advice, some people ordered him off their property. Others threatened his life.
Early last week Coutoulakis prepared an emergency preparedness checklist including such information as what food, medical and pet supplies to stock up on, and made them available at the library, town hall and other public gathering spots. He was thrilled by the response.
“Three-quarters of them were dispersed.” It was clear by mid-week – days before the storm was predicted to hit – that people were using the director’s guide as a shopping list. Walmart and Stop & Shop, both on Ten Rod Road, were seeing bottled water and canned goods fly off the shelves.
When the weekend arrived there wasn’t a size C or D battery to be found at any market, home improvement center, drug store or office supply source.
Meanwhile, Steve Mattscheck’s Department of Public Works took as many early precautions as possible. “They checked where trees could be an issue on secondary roads and trimmed,” Coutoulakis explains. “They went out Sunday night with blowers to clear the drains because the leaves were coming down. Whatever fell was cleared. All his equipment was ready as well as sandbags.”
Fire and rescue were fully staffed including a reserve rescue unit at the Nooseneck Hill Station. “We had the town completely covered. In the event of road closures or anything that could slow response time we wanted to get EMS out as quickly as possible.”
Coutoulakis also took a regional approach to sharing resources, working with West Greenwich EMA Director Brooke Lawrence at his communications center, and officials from Richmond and Hopkinton who offered extra ambulance coverage for the far western part of Exeter. In addition, the town partnered with Yawgoo Valley Search and Rescue, a non-profit working out of the ski resort.
“They have personnel and two trailers that are basically a little field hospital,” Coutoulakis explained. In an abundance of caution, he set up a portable aid station and an all-terrain vehicle capable of being deployed anywhere in Washington county on standby.
(The regionalization plan was put to the test when, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday the in-house generator at Shady Acres Nursing Home failed. Coutoulakis said staff followed the emergency plan, setting in motion response from Exeter Fire Department 2, Exeter Rescue, local EMA, the Hope Valley Ambulance Corp and the RI Disaster Medical Assistance Team which provided a backup generator from West Greenwich.
One resident was taken to the hospital as a precaution and the RI Department of Health and National Grid were notified.)
While he worked in West Greenwich, his assistant Andrew Treat took responsibility for the Job Corps, the Shady Acres nursing home and the southwest corner of the community.
As Hurricane Sandy moved up the East Coast, Coutoulakis said he was “confident about the way the community would respond.”
In North Kingstown on Sunday, folks worried about the sort of prolonged power outage caused by Tropical Storm Irene were flocking to Don’t Mower on Post Road which had a huge side at the roadway announcing the availability of generators and chainsaws.
Owner Michael Dowd said it was the first time on a Sunday the store had been open and so busy. Business, he added, was “awesome.” Over a three-day period starting on Friday, he’d sold 68 5,500-watt generators at $950 plus tax.
“I’ve got 24 generators on a truck coming in and all but two are spoken for. People are driving from New Haven, Conn., Massachusetts and New Jersey to get them.”
Dowd added that “everything is assembled, serviced and ready to go. We haven’t price-gouged. We’re trying to meet the needs of people in a bad economy; we’re here for everybody. That’s our reputation.”
Police Chief John Mulligan was in his office on Sunday afternoon, having come in for a special briefing.
“All the town officials were here at noon for a statewide” conference call with RI Emergency Management, he said. At that time the announcement was made that shelters would be opened on a regional basis rather than locally.
“The two to be used by North Kingstown are South Kingstown and Chariho high schools,” he said. It’s less of a strain on the Red Cross. It requires a lot of volunteers to open and man a shelter; with a regional system, they’re not all spread out.”
The chief said the harbormaster’s boat was pulled from the water early Sunday and he was monitoring the various spots – Wickford Shipyard, Brewer’s, Pleasant Street Wharf, and Allen Harbor – making sure vessels and moorings were secure.
Extra officers normally on special duty would be available because of the two-day closing of schools and the police academy.
Mulligan said he would be “in and out” during the hurricane. “Mostly in.”
Meanwhile, as the wind picked up in late afternoon Sunday, dozens of boats were tied up at Brewer’s like a flock of geese huddled together for protection.
Off the town beach, a lone sailboat bobbed at its mooring.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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