- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

RICHMOND — Localities waited days for ice and water, which sometimes never came. Nursing homes lost electricity when generators failed. People with medical conditions were unable to get oxygen, insulin and prescription drugs.

Although the size of the disaster was unprecedented, officials testifying yesterday before a joint legislative committee on preparation and response for Hurricane Isabel said some problems could have been avoided with improved communications systems and better foresight.

The hearing before the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees brought together the heads of several state agencies and representatives from insurance companies and public utilities to discuss what lessons could be learned from Isabel.

Better communication was a common theme.

Michael Cline, state Department of Emergency Management coordinator, said he received complaints from many localities about the difficulty state and federal agencies had handling demands for emergency supplies, such as ice, water and generators. Daily conference calls between local and state officials became confusing free-for-alls, with many localities believing this was the only way to get their voices heard.

“We never did catch up with requests for ice,” Mr. Cline said, blaming the lack of refrigerated trucks. “By the time we started to catch up, everyone’s power was coming back on.”

Delegate Harvey Morgan, Gloucester Republican, said he listened in on some conference calls and was stunned by the lack of coordination.

“Many localities were promised one thing and delivered another,” he said. “Coordination I saw on the local level was outstanding. … Communication above left something to be desired.”

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency declined to take part in the hearing, Mr. Morgan said.

In many cases, utilities tried to keep the public informed by posting updates on the Internet, but Delegate Johnny Joannou, Portsmouth Democrat, said this did little good to residents who were without power for nearly two weeks.

“You start talking about communication, you have to keep in mind, if you don’t have power, you don’t have communication,” he said.

Dominion Power and the Virginia Department of Transportation also were faulted for not coordinating with local emergency operations centers to better target the hardest hit areas.

“This is not to say that they didn’t respond admirably; they did,” said Jim Campbell, executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties. “Our frustrations were they literally refused to assign liaisons” to local emergency operations.

But Kenneth Barker, vice president for customer planning at Dominion Power, said the utility did what it could to keep the lines of communication open.

The 1.8 million customers left without electricity by the storm represented the largest power outage in the utility’s history. More than 90 percent had their power restored within 10 days.

“Was Dominion perfect? Absolutely not,” Mr. Barker said. “But I will tell you communication was the best we’ve ever had.”

Mr. Barker said further improvements will allow the company to more accurately inform customers when they will have their power restored. Mr. Cline said the state will retool its computerized system for tracking localities’ needs to avoid breakdowns.

State Department of Health Commissioner Robert B. Stroube said his agency should be working more closely with hospitals and nursing homes across the state, too. He said nursing homes, in particular, were woefully unprepared for Isabel, which state officials didn’t realize until after their backup power failed.

A panel appointed by Gov. Mark Warner to evaluate state and local disaster preparedness will present its findings to the governor next week. Mr. Cline said the report could spur legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session.

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