Lawmakers on Thursday held their first of at least two public hearings into the response of governments and utility companies to remnants of Hurricane Irene, which knocked out power to more than half the state’s utility customers for days.
Major General Kevin McBride, head of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, outlined before a Senate committee the state’s preparations in the run-up to the Aug. 28 storm and its response during and after it. He offered a few “lessons learned.”
McBride said several things could be improved, including communication between the state and its local governments. He said the state, at times, also wanted “better visibility” of the need for emergency shelters throughout the state as well as the supplies, including food and water, that were in demand.
“Did we have good information? Yes. Did I want more? Yes,” he said.
Many residents in low-lying parts of Rhode Island’s coastal communities were ordered to evacuate ahead of the storm, though each municipality made its own decision on that front. Irene knocked out power to 344,000 of National Grid’s 480,000 customers, and many residents in rural areas had no water for days because their wells require power.
State Sen. John Tassoni, a Smithfield Democrat who leads the committee, said he called the hearing not to point fingers but to figure out ways the state can better prepare for and respond to future storms. Tassoni suggested there weren’t enough emergency responders to help remove downed trees from roadways and other areas.
“We had trees down everywhere. We had lines down everywhere,” he said.
McBride said the state was still conducting training for individuals to use chain saws since it was early in the hurricane season.
“We had limited people who were trained to do that,” said McBride, who noted that more would be trained in time for any potential future storm.
Republican state Sen. Francis Maher questioned why no one stepped in to provide emergency water to the many residents in his district who were without it. He represents Charlestown, Exeter and neighboring communities.
“We were at a point where we literally had to wait for pallets of water to show up in the town to help residents, until Tuesday or Wednesday,” he said, adding that local stores were all sold out by Tuesday morning.
“I’m hoping we can get more of a response of FEMA on that,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was helping coordinate the response after a federal disaster emergency had been declared in Rhode Island by President Barack Obama.
“Communication always seems to be the No. 1 thing,” he added. Another hearing looking at the effort to restore electricity in the aftermath of the storm is scheduled for Sept. 29.