Disaster readiness: It's never too early to plan

The ice storm that gripped South Carolina in February caused millions of dollars in damage to property, battered the timber industry, and left thousands without power. The impact stretched across 22 counties and was the first federally declared disaster in the state in nearly a decade.

Natural disasters like this winter storm or other emergency situations can happen at any time to any municipality. Disaster response begins at home, and it is crucial for local officials to be prepared and to know how to react, according to Derrec Becker, public information coordinator for the SC Emergency Management Division. "It's never too early to prep for disasters, but it can be too late," Becker said.

During the ice storm, 364,000 people lost power at the height of the storm. That's more outages than during Hurricane Hugo, Becker said. About 550 people sought assistance in one of 40 shelters, he said.

Because it had been so long since the previous federally declared disaster in 2005, many municipalities were unfamiliar with the programs available to them and how to get reimbursed for damages, Becker said. Some rules and regulations also had changed.

FEMA's Public Assistance program will reimburse local and state governments, nonprofit agencies and co-ops up to 75 percent of the total costs associated with the storm. This includes debris removal, emergency services related to the storm, and the repair or replacement of damaged public utilities. State and local governments will share the remaining 25 percent of the expenses through a cost share under federal law, Becker explained.

Reforms dealing with debris removal were enacted after Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast in 2012. The federal government will reimburse 85 percent of debris removal expenses the first 30 days after a disaster, 80 percent after 60 days, and 75 percent thereafter, Becker said. FEMA has debris monitors to ensure that everything is disposed of properly.

With hurricane season in full swing, disaster planning becomes even more critical. Municipalities should have a business continuity plan in place, with a clear understanding of who is an essential employee. Establish call trees to keep everyone on staff informed. Contingency plans to address how the city will make payroll and pay bills should be in place, Becker said.

Natural disasters are not the only catastrophes for which municipalities need to plan, according to Josh Smith, public sector manager for Agility Recovery. Fires, power and communication line cuts, and technology failures also can impede operations at a municipality.

The City of Mullins utilized Agility's services when dealing with smoke damage to city hall from a fire in an adjacent building. While city hall underwent smoke remediation, Agility found employees temporary office space, Smith said.

Mullins was able to access Agility's services as a member of the South Carolina Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund, the Municipal Association's property and casualty insurance program. Since 2012, SCMIRF has partnered with Agility to provide its members with disaster planning and recovery services such as alternative office space, generators and computer equipment.

Municipalities need to assess their risks and identify which functions are critical to their day-to-day operations. City officials need to determine which employees are essential, and have back-ups and cross-training processes in place, Smith said.

Smith reiterated Becker's advice, business continuity plans are most successful when they involve everybody-department heads, staff members and even vendors (if they provide critical functions). That way municipal officials know their plans for continuity and can have backup vendors in place that can provide the same services in an emergency, Smith said.

Too often, an entity will create a plan, put it in a binder and shelve it for five years, Smith said. It's not worth anything at that point, he said, because people move on. Technology and facilities change. Plans should be updated and communicated.

Once the plan is created, managers and department heads need to communicate it, test it and adjust it, Smith said. That way, they are able to identify weak spots and improve.

Municipalities also have a responsibility to be open and accountable to the public. During times of emergency, local officials need a crisis communications plan to alert and inform the community. Having a social media and online presence is expected, Becker said.

"Social media has drastically changed crisis communications," Becker said.

If there was any doubt about social media's impact, consider this: FEMA received 20 million tweets during Sandy. SCEMD received 1.4 million tweets about the ice storm, and the SCEMD website received 20,000 hits a minute during the storm's peak, Becker said.

Derrec Becker will speak about disaster readiness and response during a breakout session at the Association's Annual Meeting on Thursday, July 10.