PROVIDENCE – With enough time gone by to gain perspective since Hurricane Irene left the state in the dark for days, the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee held the first of two public hearings Thursday on the state Emergency Management Agency's, the National Guard's and National Grid's performance during and after the storm.
“The purpose here is not to point fingers,” Sen. John Tassoni of North Smithfield and Smithfield, the committee chairman, said at the start of two and a half hour session, but to gather information on what was done well and what could have been done better.
Maj. Gen. Kevin McBride, commanding general of the RI National Guard, walked the committee through the preparation process for the storm, which he said began Aug. 22, six days before it blew into the Ocean State, downing trees and power lines, knocking out telephone and Internet service in many places along with the electricity.
Asked about downed trees that sometimes remained blocking roads for days, McBride explained, “we need trained individuals to use chainsaws and we don't have numerous individuals to do so.” He said you can't just hand someone a chainsaw and send that person out into the street, especially if the trees and other debris are entangled in electrical lines.
When Tassoni asked if there would be more National Guard personnel wielding chainsaws in the next storm, McBride answered that there would be.
With 344,000 of the 480,000 National Grid customers in Rhode Island without power immediately after the storm, McBride said that was the third largest number in New England, after Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the Saturday after the Sunday storm, he said, about 3,000 customers, or less than 1 percent, were still powerless.
Pressed by Tassoni as to whether there should be one single authority to decide things such as whether schools should close statewide, McBride balked at the notion, telling the senator “local school departments should decide whether or not we have school. Tassoni disagreed, telling the general, “one voice has to step up and make a decision. People's lives are in danger, I would err on the side of caution. I would have closed the whole state down.
Questioned by Sen. Francis Maher, whose district spans several south county communities, about the availability of drinking water in rural towns where a lack of electricity also stops running water, McBride acknowledged, “we weren't maybe as well prepared for that.” He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages local EMAs to get commodities such as bottled water from local retailers to help stimulate the local economy, to be reimbursed later by the federal government.
North Smithfield's public works crews were hampered in their efforts to cut trees and clear roads, Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton told the committee, “because they did not have enough communication from National Grid on obtaining the go-ahead to clear trees that were entangled in wires.
The town also immediately started the process of setting up a shelter, Hamilton said, then we were told they would not be reimbursed for the cost because there would be regional shelters. “We made a decision at that point that enough people had asked us to do so that we went ahead and for the public safety to go ahead with our plans to open a shelter.
The regional shelter for North Smithfield was in Cumberland, with an overflow facility in Pawtucket if it were needed.
The regional shelters, Smithfield Emergency Management Director Todd Manni explained, were “full-service shelters” equipped with cots, blankets, food, medical personnel and mental health services. “To spread that out to 39 communities would have been a challenge for the Red Cross.”
Smithfield Town Manager Dennis Finlay said that after town officials called National Grid starting on the day after the storm to alert them to areas with power outages, “trucks that we were told would be there in short order never arrived. Each day we called in and faxed in the problem areas, day in and day out. We never saw a National Grid truck or outside vendor's truck all Monday and Tuesday in Smithfield. Day in and day out, the responses never came.”
National Grid officials are expected to attend the committee's next hearing, Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. at the Statehouse.