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Kitsap first to declare emergency

This week’s flood fell short of epic disaster proportions, but not because Mother Nature didn’t pull out all the stops. Instead, the county’s preparedness level and careful planning served to mitigate the damage.

One of the first actions of Kitsap County’s Department of Emergency Management is to connect to 911 and filter out the life-threatening situations for immediate attention.

“On Monday morning, 911 was inundated with telephone calls,” said DEM Spokesperson Susan May. “It was the first indications we had of the crisis, as we were alerted to issues like flooded basements and road damage.”

“We needed to address anything where life or safety was threatened,” said DEM Program Coordinator Michael Gordon, explaining that once his department receives reports of an emergency situation, it solicits assistance from one of the local emergency operations center.

“Each city has its own EOC,” Gordon said. “So we can delegate the response rather than sending our own people out to visit the site.”

Gordon said the agency began preparing for extreme wind and rain conditions on Sunday in response to weather forecasts. He began assembling a team from all the needed agencies, alerting them to the probability that their services would be needed.

Early Monday morning the team began to assemble at the DEM headquarters in Bremerton. As road conditions worsened Gordon contacted Central Kitsap Commissioner Josh Brown and Kitsap declared an emergency before 9:30 a.m. — the first county to do so in the state.

The disaster team is made up of several separate groups, who are assigned to tables in a large command room. Television monitors and charts line the walls, and the room is headed with a command table, which includes public information. Other groups allocated to tables around the room include operations, planning, logistics and finance.

Gordon said the DEM team will meet after the holidays to evaluate its performance and fix whatever problems may have emerged — although his first impression was that any drawbacks were minimal.

“There are always issues we need to address,” he said. “A lot of times it comes from the fact that not everything you need is available right away. In past crises we have operated with no Internet, no long distance, and no power. In one recent case we had no electricity because the generators didn’t kick in when they were supposed to. The only light in the room came from the (battery operated) computer screens.”

This week’s flood occurred at an inopportune time for the DEM, as its director, Phyllis Mann, was in Phoenix, Ariz., attending a training session about government grants. Gordon took over Mann’s duties, which included coordinating the operation and communicating with local municipalities, although Mann was in regular contact through cell phone and e-mail.

The concept of disaster was also relative. On Wednesday morning, the gate outside of DEM was smashed and twisted, but no one in the building could say how or when it happened.

Throughout the week, people from all parts of the county were drying off, with many travelers facing temporary or long-term revisions to their daily commute.

“Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate,” May said. “Everyone is vulnerable during a disaster.”

As soon as the rain stopped, the DEM shifted its attention from damage control to damage quantification. The final numbers are to be presented to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office early next week, and will be combined with data from throughout the state.

Subsequently, all the data will be forwarded to President George W. Bush, who will presumably approve disaster relief legislation.

The Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management (DEM) estimates that at least $2 million in damages to private property were incurred from Monday’s rain, which includes structures and lost wages, but not the loss of plants or landscaping. At press time there was no estimate available for public property, but damages to bridges and roads could exceed the cost of private damage.

Adequate preparation for the storm was difficult to impossible.

“A rainfall like this, from six to ten inches already, is of record proportions, said Public Works Spokesman Doug Bear. “So no matter what you did ahead of time, it wouldn’t have made any difference.”

At the same time, residents who take basic precautions can relieve the stress on emergency personnel, allowing them to focus on people trapped in their cars instead of people without enough food or water.

This underscores the importance of stocking up on emergency supplies and using the number of available disaster-related Web sites as a source for what materials are needed to stay safe and dry.

For a video about the efforts battling this week’s flood conditions go to www.portorchardindependent.com.

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