Tropical Storm Michael leaves path of devastation
On Oct. 11, Tropical Storm Michael tore through Prince Edward County, causing widespread damage. The storm challenged emergency coordinators due to its shift in trajectory, causing it to become more severe than what was previously projected.
Both Prince Edward County and the town of Farmville have an Emergency Operations Plan that they use to help prepare for emergencies. These plans run off of the four phases of emergency management, which are preparedness, response, recovery, and prevention/mitigation.
Preparing for Michael
Prince Edward County Emergency Management Coordinator Sara Puckett stated she presented a briefing of the preparation actions Prince Edward was taking for the hurricane during a board of visitors meeting.
Puckett said, “There’s a very basic line of services and essential requirements to maintain.”
The document included plans for various aspects in anticipation for the storm. Various locations were named as stations for sheltering, water and electrical charging. Other aspects were included in the briefing, including the placing of a 1,500 gallon water tank at the animal control shelter, the distribution of public information and the operation of various services such as the sheriff’s office.
“What we are monitoring for is, in addition to the actual impact of the weather event, would be the power outages, the road closures, the flooding, the damage assessments,” said Puckett. “Because different people need that information.”
Farmville Town Manager and Emergency Management Coordinator Gerry Spates stated the town of Farmville was very well prepared for the storm. Right-a-ways in the town are cut throughout the year with a program through the town. The CodeRED Emergency Alert system along with the newspapers and the radio stations were used to help distribute information regarding the storm throughout the town.
Spates said, “It’s a terrible event but it’s one you got to be prepared for, and I felt that we were very well prepared.”
Longwood University also prepared for the storm, according to Longwood Emergency Management Coordinator Tracie Giles. Giles stated Longwood kept track of the storm by working with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the National Weather Service in Wakefield to stay on top of where the storm was headed. However, Giles said that Michael was different from past storms due to how fast it shifted its trajectory.
Giles said, “We were not expected to get the impacts that we got until that storm shifted late in the day on that Thursday.”
Puckett shared a similar opinion, stating the information she received before the storm hit “did not prepare us for the impact.” However, Spates stated he felt the storm was not as bad as he thought it would be.
Spates said, “It was bad, but it was not as bad as they originally predicted for us.”
According to the storm summary report provided by Puckett, the impact of Michael lasted from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m., in which six to twelve inches of rainfall occurred with wind gusts above 60 mph. There was minor flooding in the courthouse along with flooding in the basement of the visitor’s center. Various buildings in Prince Edward had to have power restored, including animal control and the waste management landfill.
Puckett stated it became clear the storm was going to be much worse than anticipated soon after its arrival.
“It was pretty soon,” said Puckett. “And when the flash flood occurred in downtown Farmville, we knew at that point that the mean total that we might get four to eight inches of rain, that what we hadn’t been told was that the four to eight inches of rain might come within one to two hours.”
Puckett stated that during the storm, swift water rescues had to be performed to save those stranded in their cars. According to Farmville Fire Department Fire Chief Dean Farmer, outside swift water rescue teams from Nottoway, Appomattox, and Concord had to be called in for the rescues.
Farmer said, “We identified with the torrential rain and the rapidly rising water that it may be a possibility that we need a water rescue team.”
According to Farmer, 23 people were stationed at the fire department and were readily available to assist in responding to the storm. Farmer stated that during the swift water rescues, brush crews were also sent to remove trees from roadways to gain access to the locations for the rescues. The fire department logged 29 calls for service during the storm, with the last call happening shortly after midnight.
Spates stated the cost of damage from Michael to Farmville is estimated to be possibly one million dollars. According to Puckett, Prince Edward County suffered less than 15 thousand dollars of damage while the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) suffered 1.5 million dollars of damage to bridges and roads throughout the county. Giles was unable to give an estimate to the total cost of damage to Longwood.
With the substantial rain Michael brought, Farmville is now above the yearly average for rainfall. According to the National Weather Cooperative Observer, Farmville has received 46.99 inches of rain as of Nov. 1, compared to a year to date average of 32.95.
Recovering from the Storm
Power outages were one of the biggest issues faced after the storm hit. According to the storm summary, over 80 percent of Prince Edward County lost power. Spates stated that 20 to 25 percent of the Farmville was without power as well. Downed trees and power lines prevented many from gaining power until days later, with full power restoration being achieved on Oct. 17.
“A lot of the coordination we did immediately after the storm was with the utility companies to try and understand what the restoration of power was going to be,” said Puckett.
Water Damage was another big issue Longwood faced after the storm, with Bedford Hall receiving severe water damage in its basement, causing widespread damage and shutting the basement down, according to Giles.
Giles said, “We knew that Bedford was pretty significant.”
Farmer stated the fire department continued to respond to downed power lines and trees in the days after Michael. The fire department also acted as a water station to the community for two to three days after the storm hit, where they supplied drinking water to residents. According to Farmer, the recovery process only took 24 hours before the fire department was back to normal operations.
According to Giles, Longwood used both a Crisis and Emergency Management Plan (CEMP) and a Continuity of Operations Plan (COP) during the storm. The CEMP plan details how Longwood is going to respond when an event happens on campus while the COP plan details how the university will operate when people and offices are moved. Giles stated that the COP plan is still in place, as the recovery phase is still in process with Bedford Hall still under repair.
Prince Edward County is still in the recovery phase as well, with Gully Tavern Rd., Miller Lake Rd., and Allen Farm Rd. still under repair, according to Puckett. Two of the roads are expected to be finished by the end of the year, however, the third will not be finished until next spring as it is a complete bridge repair.
New Changes Going Forward
To help ensure that public information regarding a disaster such as Michael will be distributed faster, a new emergency alert system will be put in place next year. According to Puckett, both Farmville and Prince Edward County will be switching from the CodeRED Emergency Alert system to a new system called Everbridge. Puckett stated the system will launch Jan. 1 and will allow Longwood students to subscribe to it.
Puckett stated, “It will be received on devices or in homes via text message, via email, or via voice call.”
According to their website, Everbridge is a company specializing in Critical Event Management Solutions. They state their mass communications system allows them to broadcast to any communication device, allowing for the right message to get to people.
A new Public Information Officer was also instated in Prince Edward County earlier this year, according to Puckett. They will be looking at updating the county’s website and ensuring the county has more of a presence on social media to improve the distribution of public information as well.
Puckett said, “The county of Prince Edward knows we have to build on our public information.”
Giles stated Longwood has learned new things in the wake of Michael that they will change to ensure better coordination during the next disaster.
According to Giles, one of the things that is being worked on is how to better communicate with students, including getting information out sooner and ensuring that students understand the context of the alerts that is being sent. Another thing that will be changed is a new dry erase board will be put in the Command Center to help log information and incoming calls as a disaster unfolds.
“There’s always things that we can work on,” said Giles. “It doesn’t mean that they’re failures, it just means you can always improve.”