Peter Gaynor, Director the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), wheels forward in his chair and plugs an address into one of the many display monitors set up at a desk inside the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the command center for all emergency preparedness operations in Rhode Island.
Immediately projected on the right-most section of the front wall is a flood map of the Conimicut neighborhood, with each house plotted as a data point. Areas of shading, from light blue to dark blue, indicate the likelihood of flooding occurring in each portion of the state, and is based on historical data of floods recorded in the state.
“We’re in favor of preparedness here,” Gaynor said matter-of-factly, with two separate tracking systems mapping out the current course of Hurricane Irma projected to the left of the flood map of Conimicut.
Irma, as of Wednesday, was upgraded to a Category 5 storm –the largest ever tracked over the Atlantic Ocean with sustained winds of 185 MPH. However, Gainer said that its current path did not render Rhode Island in serious danger. This doesn’t mean that they won’t continue tracking it as long as the threat is even remotely possible, as conditions and the storm’s direction can change, literally, overnight.
Preparing for the worst is certainly the name of the game inside the EOC, and for RIEMA in general. Although the center was calm and mostly empty on Tuesday, it wasn’t hard to imagine 18 separate operators manning their individual computer terminals, each responsible for a different portion of emergency management – from monitoring utilities and the electrical grid to orchestrating evacuations.
Keeping Rhode Island prepared for calamitous events, the most common of which is flooding, includes an all-hands-on-deck approach, from the Governor’s Office and state agencies up top all the way down to individual homeowners and businesses.
RIEMA recently finished up four days of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training with 168 of its partners in June. One full day of training was spent in the EOC, going over a hypothetical hurricane response.
“We want to make sure that we get an early head start on our protocol…so when the bell goes off, you’re ready,” Gaynor said.
The hurricane response for RIEMA includes three “decision points,” from the least serious, blue, to more serious, yellow, and the most serious, red. Gaynor showed a map that outlined several areas on the Eastern coast of the United States and the relative danger to Rhode Island should a storm wind up in those areas, represented by shades of the aforementioned colors.
Recently, RIEMA updated the state’s EAS system, which is the warning system that goes out via television and radio stations to alert residents of an impending emergency. Gaynor said the system hadn’t been updated in 20 years, and it will be tested on Sept. 27.
RIEMA has crafted 51 continuation of operations plans over the course of more than a year for Rhode Island government bodies, which are essentially contingency plans for the government to be able to continue running in the event of a disaster.
“Basically it’s how do you stay in business?” Gaynor said. “How do you deliver essential functions if you’re forced to move out of your place of business – whether it’s because of a flood or if the sprinkler system goes off unexpectedly?”
That planning now extends to commercial businesses as well. RIEMA partnered with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and the Rhode Island Fusion Center, in collaboration with founding business members Amica Mutual Insurance Company, Citizens Bank, CVS Health, Fidelity Investments, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Raytheon, to create the Rhode Island Alliance for Business Resilience in May.
The alliance intends to combine government resources and private sector services to “provide a unified voice within the public sector for continuity and disaster operations on behalf of the business community,” according to a press release announcing the public-private partnership.
Similarly, RIEMA partnered with the Business Network of Emergency Resources in June to bring the Corporate Emergency Access System (CEAS) to the entire state of Rhode Island. The CEAS is a contingency program which grants essential employees of businesses and nonprofits temporary access credentials to areas that are normally off limits during times of crisis and emergency.
“By bringing CEAS to Rhode Island, we hope to help reduce the economic impacts of disasters and get the private sector back on line sooner to support community response and recovery operations,” stated Gaynor in a release. “There is an integral relationship between business continuity, essential public services and the speed and success of disaster recovery.”
Most recently in late August, RIEMA enacted a four-step playbook through funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to ensure that all healthcare facilities in Rhode Island would have proper contingencies in the event of an emergency. The four steps include assessing a facility’s vulnerabilities, providing tips for how to ensure they can restore power or enact an emergency power protocol and ways to implement better strategies once an event has passed.
“Rhode Island is susceptible to power outages stemming from natural disasters such as hurricanes, winter storms, floods, as well as human-caused and technological incidents,” said Gaynor during an event at Women & Infants Hospital. “Therefore, it is crucial that we work together as a state to assist critical facilities that are dependent on power to provide support to Rhode Island’s most vulnerable populations.”
On an individual level, Gaynor strongly recommended homeowners to invest in flood insurance if their address falls in one of the areas that has historically been susceptible to flooding. Residents can access the interactive map to see where there property lies in regards to flooding and get information about flood insurance at www.riema.ri.gov/resources/citizens/mitigation/mapping.php.
Gaynor also recommended downloading the “CodeRED” mobile app, which gives real-time alerts to users in the immediate areas of impact of a disaster. Any other steps that homeowners can take, such as elevating their properties and moving valuables to higher ground, he said should be taken well in advance of any potential storm.
Overall, 26 of 39 communities in Rhode Island are deemed “Storm Ready” by the National Weather Service, meaning they “have reached a high level of severe weather preparedness.” Warwick, Cranston and Johnston are certified as Storm Ready, as is Providence. Dan Starr, external affairs coordinator for RIEMA, said that it is the agency’s goal to get all 39 communities on the list by October.
After showing the current path of Irma with a laser pointer, Gaynor traced the beam to a spot barely visible on the map. He pointed out Tropical Storm Jose, which has since been upgraded to a Category 3 hurricane and Gaynor accurately predicted. The current path of Jose may actually have more implications for Rhode Islanders than Irma will, should it increase in intensity and remain on its current path.
Asked if there is any concern about climate change causing an increase in the frequency and severity of such storms, Gaynor said he must take a practical approach to his job rather than become concerned with reasons.
“We’re in the middle of prime hurricane season,” he said. “We’re just getting started. I need to get Rhode Island residents prepared for now. I’m worried about things that might happen tomorrow.”