NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 5, 2014

Public safety officials outline efforts to prepare for severe storms

BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
STAFF WRITER

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Much of the recent discussion regarding threatening winter weather on the coast has related to preserving seaside houses, but a gathering of local public safety officials this week focused on how to save people.

The group Sea Level Rise meeting Monday brought together emergency managers from Newburyport, Newbury and Salisbury, who spoke about precautions their organizations take and what vulnerable residents can do during a “code red” or serious storm.

“We don’t take evacuation lightly,” said police Chief Michael Reilly of Newbury, who is also the lead emergency management official. “We consult with weather professionals, state emergency teams, and we will watch the conditions ourselves.

“But if we do recommend leaving, take our evacuation orders seriously.”

Marshal Thomas Howard of Newburyport said that if there is a serious storm, “stay informed, and have a plan” for leaving areas prone to flooding.

Sea Level Rise leaders weren’t saying that tumultuous weather is on the way, but this year-old group takes storms seriously.

Indeed, spokesman Mike Morris offered a well-illustrated visual presentation that noted that a half-dozen storms in the past decade have come close to creating disastrous conditions on the Essex County coast.

“If Superstorm Sandy had come further north, our coastline could have been devastated,” said Morris, who said he has studied coastal weather conditions for almost two decades.

Morris said that coastal dwellers can’t assume they will escape harm with each storm system, and for that reason the group brought spokesmen from emergency management groups together.

Sea Level Rise has offered a half-dozen programs in recent months to discuss storms and tumultuous weather conditions.

Scientists that the group have hosted have said that water levels in the ocean and rivers are rising, and that severe conditions that begin offshore can result in major storm surges along the coast.

Those who attend the organization’s sessions say such discussions are timely additions to the public discourse because the erosion of parts of Plum Island is tangible proof that local areas are vulnerable.

Speaker Robert Thompson, meteorologist-in-charge of the National Weather Service in Taunton, said, “If you look at weather events going back to Hurricane Bob in 1991, it’s evident that one of many storms could have done great damage to the state’s coastline.

“This area has dodged a bullet in certain storms, but residents have to be ready if a major event does target this coast,” he added.

Sea Level Rise officials said that those near a river’s edge must also be alert to tumultuous weather events.

Morris noted that several years ago, Cashman Park was under several feet of water. He added that Amesbury’s Powow River rises and rushes through the downtown area when springtime rain combines with melting snow to create a significant amount of surface water.

Robert Cook, emergency management director in Salisbury, indicated that public-safety officials in that coastal community have been making plans for years regarding evacuation.

“Many people in Salisbury don’t have their own transportation,” he said. “We must be ready to help move them out of low areas.”

He added that public officials have developed evacuation plans knowing that several major roads, including Route 1, could be shut down by water rising in the marshes during stormy weather.

The local officials said they have formal plans on how to react to an extreme weather event, even if it is predicted four days prior to the moment it reaches shore.

In this particular discussion, the term “evacuation” came up often.

Reilly said, “We will never ask people to evacuate without much study and discussion with state emergency officials, because we don’t want to be accused to crying ‘wolf.’ Residents wouldn’t listen to us again if we don’t get it right.

“But if we do say evacuate, we want you to leave. If not, just take a Sharpie and write your Social Security number on your arm so we can identify you after the storm.”