NEWBURYPORT — When millions of plastic waste treatment disks escaped a Hooksett, N.H., plant into the Merrimack River in March and floated all the way to Greater Newburyport, local officials acted fast.
Emergency Management directors in several communities, including Newburyport's City Marshal Thomas Howard, scrambled to come up with a quick plan not only to clean up the disks, but to inform the public and close waterfront areas.
Within hours of the first report of disks, Newburyport had closed its waterfront areas and sent out general alerts to residents. Local and state officials were called in to assess the situation and tours of the affected beach areas and riverbanks were conducted. A work crew was quickly assembled and cleanup began almost immediately.
In the hours that followed, conference calls were arranged with state officials in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts and meetings were organized.
The rapid response to such an unforeseen and widespread ecological calamity is one of the events Howard pointed to as a highlight of his first year as Emergency Management director.
Howard was appointed to the post by Mayor Donna Holaday in July 2010, succeeding Ray Goodwin. Since then, Howard said the department has been able to upgrade much of its equipment and improve lines of communication.
The department received grants to purchase new radio equipment, several cots and even a small trailer that will allow the city to set up a command post much like the town of Newbury did on Plum Island in the immediate aftermath of the disk spill incident.
Both Howard and Holaday praised the work of assistant Emergency Management director Don DeGloria, who has pitched in and helped Howard make dramatic improvements.
"He's been instrumental," Howard said.
Holaday also praised Howard for his ability to step right in and overhaul the department.
"Overall, I'm very, very pleased with the direction of things," Holaday said. "One of the things we discovered was that 95 percent of our documentation was outdated."
So Howard, with DeGloria's assistance, was tasked with revising plans, modernizing procedures and updating contact information. It's just one of the tasks the department has fulfilled, Holaday said.
"He's doing an excellent job," Holaday said of Howard.
In addition to improving lines of communication between local, regional, state and federal emergency officials, Howard said another key part of the city's Emergency Management Department is to train enough people to help create temporary shelters.
Case in point: When Tropical Storm Irene hit the East Coast last month, Emergency Management was quick to help organize a temporary shelter at the Salvation Army gymnasium off Water Street and provide transportation to anyone who needed a ride there. As it turned out, the storm grazed the region, and only two or three people took advantage of the shelter.
Had the Salvation Army gymnasium not been available, those who needed shelter during the storm may have been directed to the closest state shelter located in Salem, more than 45 minutes away in perfect driving conditions.
Having the nearest shelter so far away makes little sense, especially if weather conditions, such as a blizzard, make it nearly impossible to reach it, said Howard, who called such as situation "unacceptable."
Saying it's imperative to "keep people local," Howard said establishing a local or regional shelter is one of his goals for the coming year. Howard added he would like to reach out to his counterparts in Amesbury and Salisbury about perhaps creating a regional shelter.
Salisbury Emergency Management director Bob Cook said he agreed with Howard that it made little sense to direct people in need of shelter to far-away Salem.
"That's completely unacceptable," Cook said.
But Cook said his first choice would be for each community to have its own designated shelter. That being said, if it came to establishing a regional shelter, he would be all for it.
In the months to come, Holaday said she is hoping much-needed improvements to the Emergency Management office on Low Street will be completed. Specifically, she said, the building is in need of a new roof, but initial estimates have the project costing up to $500,000.
The Emergency Management building affords a single place where city and state officials, including the state police and National Guard, can coordinate their efforts and manage responses to both small- and large-scale emergencies and disasters, be they natural or man-made.