Officials: Flood-prone towns lack plans for disaster
In eight of the region's most flood-prone communities, emergency responders are meeting minimum state requirements for emergency planning, but only a third of the response groups have plans tailored to flooding, according to an ongoing University of Pittsburgh study.
Towns in the region's many flood plains need better planning to improve responses to flooding emergencies, said Louise Comfort, a University of Pittsburgh expert leading a team researching local flood-response plans.
Of the 29 police, fire and emergency medical departments in eight towns surveyed, 10 have thorough, flood-specific response plans, according to her team's findings.
Some town officials say it is more important to be flexible than to plan for every possible type of emergency. One town studied was Carnegie, which sustained some of the worst flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It uses only county's all-purpose plan, not one specific to flooding, said police Chief Jeffrey Harbin, who also is the borough's interim manager.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is, every situation is so different, to have a particular template for every different scenario, and follow it step by step by step, I don't think you can do that," said Harbin. "You have to remain adaptable."
Comfort is pushing for more attention to flooding across the region. Flash floods in 2004 showed the importance of quick, coordinated, regional responses, and some departments on their own have begun adding detail to their plans and improving their capabilities, she said.
On June 17, Turtle Creek, Pitcairn, Wilkins, Jeanette, Export, Penn Township and Penn Borough were some of the hardest hit by flash floods. Those communities were not included in this survey, conducted months before.
Comfort's team of three researchers met this winter with emergency response leaders in Carnegie, Etna, Hampton, Millvale, North Fayette, Oakdale, Reserve, and Shaler. They picked some of the hardest-hit communities from flash flooding in 2004 to compare planning before and afterward. She plans to release the final report this fall.
Comfort declined to release specific findings by town, saying she promised confidentiality, but did say at least six have plans that specifically address flooding.
All eight communities meet the state's requirement by having all-purpose hazard plans, a Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman said. Some communities said they would unlikely be affected by flooding except by an event so large that Allegheny County would take over the response.
"What we find is that many of these communities have informal practices," said Comfort, director of Pitt's Center for Disaster Management. "So they say, 'Sure, we have a plan,' but that plan just consists of the chief talking to his friend who he went to high school or played baseball with, and that's it.
"That actually works pretty well for the standard issues. ... But what we're more concerned about are the region-wide events that overwhelm these communities, that overtax them.
PEMA requires towns to have a general hazard-management plan or to at least adopt the county's plan, said spokeswoman Ruth Meyers. Municipalities are not required to have more specific plans addressing chronic problems, and it is common for towns to adopt only the required, all-purpose plan, said Robert A. Full, director of Allegheny County's Department of Emergency Services.
The state requires updates every two years, and the federal government requires them every five, Meyers said.
But several departments are failing to make these biennial updates, which could slow their ability to coordinate their response with other towns, and county and state emergency officials, said Comfort, who said her research was prompted by her interest in decision-making under uncertainty.
Hampton has a specific flood-response plan among several disaster scenarios, but those plans were all created from the same template, manager W. Christopher Lochner said. In most serious cases, the county will step in anyway.
"So I'm not so sure it's all that terrible that the nitty-gritty detail analysis isn't there for every town in every situation, as long as the people who coordinate the response, in our case the county, have a plan set out, and I believe they do." Lochner said.
After the 2004 flash floods, many emergency responders started adding wireless internet and electronic devices to communicate. While 10 departments have written flood-response plans, the number was three before 2004.
That's when Oakdale had an informal emergency plan without much detail or many backup options, Emergency Management Coordinator Bob Kolesky said. New to the job, he had just started to beef up the plan when Ivan struck. Some simple improvements ensured Oakdale had two backup locations for a command center — which it needed — and took necessary steps to protect a vulnerable day care center, where officials helped keep 20 children safe from rising water.
"As a matter of fact, when we came up with the plan, everybody said the same thing, 'Nothing really happens in Oakdale. What are you worried about?' Well, thank God we had the least plan in," Kolesky said.
The plan now includes emergency routes, a chain of command, and a digitized database with important phone numbers and a protocol for whom to call and when under different scenarios.
Full and Tim Baughman, PEMA's Western Region director, encourage people to be vigilant and question their local governments to make sure they're prepared for a disaster. Towns with outdated emergency plans could lose federal and state relief money if they're not, though that has not happened here, Baughman said.
"It's a question of their priorities," Baughman said. "And sadly, we've seen it time and time again, that we come into a community with past flooding problems, but the creeks are filled with debris, and they're really not prepared."