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Emergency planners in Pennsylvania in 'watch and wait' mode as Hurricane Irma approaches

Chuck Biedka
| Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, 12:18 a.m.

Storm rescue gear and staffing lists are double-checked. For emergency planners in Pennsylvania, it's watching and waiting now.

Emergency managers say they don't know if Hurricane Irma — or perhaps Jose later on — will cause problems in Pennsylvania. There isn't enough information. Not yet.

“Everything is written in Jell-O,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Lee Hendricks in Pittsburgh.

Irma, or what's left of it, could veer north and enter the Ohio River Valley, directly affecting Western Pennsylvania, or it could travel farther east, causing problems in the Philadelphia area, Hendricks said.

Predictions late Saturday were calling for the eye of the Category 3 hurricane to move its way up Florida's west coast toward Tampa by Monday.

Ready to respond

Already, Pennsylvania has National Guard units, swift water rescuers and other specialists in Texas helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, said Ruth Miller, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. Those include an urban swift water search-and-rescue team from Philadelphia and a state Fish & Boat Commission swift water team.

Last week, in a large-scale test, all county emergency managers were in contact with PEMA to talk about possible activation of storm follow-up and rescue services, Miller said.

They also talked about how to fill in for services in the event that Pennsylvania units are sent to Texas, Florida or elsewhere on a long-term basis, she said.

All states are part of the federal Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a mutual aid agreement among states to share resources. If the services are needed back in Pennsylvania, “they can be pulled back,” Miller said.

And other states can send their units here, if needed, to fill in for local units responding to the Gulf Coast.

Among the units in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties that could be requested in Florida are mobile command centers, swift water rescue teams, hazardous incident teams, and specialized equipment such as the 26 free-standing decontamination units stationed in Western Pennsylvania or the mobile evacuation and rehabilitation vehicle that is based at Lower Kiski EMS in Parks Township, Armstrong County.

Preparing for the possible

Allegheny County's swift water and other specialty teams did an equipment and fuel check last week to make sure they are prepared for work in the county or elsewhere, said Matthew J. Brown, who directs Allegheny County Emergency Services.

There also were coordinating discussions last week with PEMA, he said.

“We have to keep up our situational awareness,” Brown said.

Westmoreland County has swift water, hazmat and medical teams, and specialized equipment that can be deployed in the county or stationed elsewhere as needed, said Westmoreland County Public Safety Director Roland “Bud” Mertz.

The department held a planning meeting and asked special teams that might be called to help in Florida or elsewhere to check fuel and equipment status, he said.

State officials also contacted the county's 65 EMS coordinators — just in case — to talk about where people could go if they have to be evacuated.

Local officials point to the flooding in Western Pennsylvania from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 as reason for residents here to be prepared for Irma.

“At this point we are watching the storm models from the National Weather Service,” said Armstrong County Emergency Director William Hamilton.

“Everywhere except Elderton is in a potential flash flood zone,” he said.

“Fortunately, the Kiski River and Redbank Creek are running low, so they can accept a lot of water,” he said.

Appropriately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says September is National Preparedness Month.

“It's a good time to look at your individual emergency plan for you and your family,” Mertz said. “Where will you meet in case of a fire or flooding? Plan now and know rather than guess later.”

Mertz said checklists are available online to help while public safety managers are in “watch and wait” mode.

That's common advice from emergency experts.

Now is the time for residents and officials to make plans for people with fragile support, said Point Park University professor Robert Skertich, a disaster management expert.

The elderly and others dependent on outside care or medical equipment need to be remembered in the case of an evacuation.

Families and neighbors should make sure local officials know about these needs, Skertich said.

Chuck Biedka is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4711, cbiedka@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ChuckBiedka.

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