RICHMOND — On a clear, sunny day Richmond officials gathered in the council chambers at Town Hall to discuss how they would deal with a very different weather situation: a fictional Category 3 hurricane named Lorraine.
Emergency Management Director Joe Arsenault, who coordinated the exercise Monday, said his objectives included establishing procedures and lines of communications and uncovering problems that might compromise the town’s readiness.
“This exercise is an opportunity for town employees and department heads to get together and discuss the scenario of a hurricane hitting the town and the impact it’s going to have, and then roles and responsibilities, how we’re rolling out the emergency operations plan, how we’re going to be working together, some of the challenges they may face that I may be unaware of,” he said.
Department of Public Works Director Scott Barber said he hoped the exercise would help expose any weak links in the town’s preparedness plans.
“It opens the line of communications,” he said. “We’ve been through previous events together, and we learned something each time, so any time you can expose a weakness or learn something new, there’s always something new that comes out of it.”
Police Chief Elwood Johnson said rehearsing emergency responses was critical to dealing effectively with the real thing. “Emergency planning is important, because when it happens, this stuff kicks in,” he said. “So, the idea is, we rehearse enough times, at least there’s a familiarity so that you have a general course of action to follow.”
With warnings of simulated hurricane Lorraine’s arrival beginning on Friday, and the storm expected to hit on Tuesday, Arsenault asked department heads how they would prepare their staff and their equipment. He also asked some sobering questions, reminders that before they assumed their responsibilities for the town, they should make sure their own homes, families and pets were safe.
“If this storm hits full steam, are you ready? Is your house in order? What if your house gets destroyed? Are you still going to be able to come?” he asked. “You’ve got to make sure you have fuel in your car come Monday morning. You’ve got to make sure you have your medications if you’re on meds. You’ve got to make sure you have some basic food supplies. You’ve got to make sure your family’s safe, your pets are safe.”
As the exercise continued, a direct hit from Lorraine became increasingly certain. Traffic in town intensified, with people, including Charlestown residents, driving inland to buy storm supplies or escape the storm altogether.
“All our residents are going to go to Stop & Shop and that area of town to get fuel, to get batteries, to get those basic supplies, and everybody else is going to be coming from South Kingstown, Narragansett and Charlestown down Route 138 to get to 95 to get back to Connecticut or New York or wherever they’re from…As an employee of the town, you’ve got to start thinking, ‘How am I going to get around that?’ ” Arsenault said.
When Lorraine finally hit, it knocked out the town’s water supply, damaged about 20 homes and the town’s commercial center, and blew down thousands of trees, knocking out power. Many residents, evacuated from their neighborhoods, were now at the emergency shelter at Chariho Middle School. Arsenault explained that the shelter had been modified to withstand hurricanes.
“The roof has been reinforced with hurricane screws. I don’t know if everybody’s aware of that. It also has hurricane glass. They did that during the remodeling phase for us,” he said.
Town Council President B. Joseph Reddish explained that while Richmond was far removed from the storm surge that affected coastal communities, it had its own serious storm hazards.
“Our vulnerabilities are that we’re surrounded by trees, we have a number of trailer park situations, we have some low-lying water situations such as KG Ranch Road,” he said.
Reddish said he hoped more residents would register with the town’s Code Red emergency notification system, so they could receive alerts and messages during severe weather.
“It is not a requirement, but it is for their protection and I would think that they would want to participate in any program that is for their protection,” he said.
The exercise concluded with plans for another session sometime next winter, one specifically designed to deal with winter storms.
Town Administrator Robert Rock said that with the weather becoming more unpredictable, it was important for the town to be prepared for the worst.
“With the ever-changing weather that we’re having, in the past couple of years, we’ve had some serious storms and I think it’s always good to be prepared, so that the town can fully operate even when things are not going well with the weather,” he said.
The town also put out a call for more emergency volunteers.
“We have about 12 active now. I’d like to see 25,” Arsenault said.
Volunteer Helen Kenyon said she had only just begun her training, which takes about 20 hours spread out over several weeks.
“I’m just getting started with the program,” she said. “I decided to get involved after the big snowstorm, Nemo. I saw how damaging it was, and I saw people coming into the shelter. I just want to be able to help.”
Residents interested in becoming emergency volunteers can get more information at Town Hall.