September is National Preparedness Month, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The campaign aims to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to all types of emergencies, including natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks.
In Sussex County, residents have access to local resources to help them stay safe.
A first step would be to visit the County’s website (SussexCountyDE.com), and under the “Citizens” tab is a public safety section which includes “Emergency Preparedness.”
“When you open that page up, we have written next to ‘Red Cross emergency disaster kits,’ evacuation routes, different kinds of public safety information, if you will,” explained Sussex County Emergency Operations Director Joe Thomas. “That’s probably the best place to start, because that’s the information that’s kind of local.”
Thomas said a good way to start to prepare for a disaster is by putting together a hurricane evacuation kit, which should include food, a first-aid kit and clothes.
“I’m a firm believer that everyone should have a disaster kit. Although we typically talk about flooding in this county, the fact is that anything could happen at any given time,” said Thomas. “I know we don’t see a lot of them in this area, but there could be a potential for tornadoes.
”Out west, you see a lot of forest fires, and you see people’s homes destroyed. When they’re told to evacuate, they have to do it very quickly. Having that kit at the ready is very important, because now you don’t have to take the time to put everything together — it’s there.”
Thomas said he recommends kits have three days’ worth of supplies.
“FEMA, federal assistance, is typically two to three days getting to us. So if you’ve got three days of supplies, you can be self-sufficient; then, when help does arrive, you’re just transitioning from one to the other.
“And cash. People don’t think about the need to have cash. Nine times out of 10, the power’s out, and you can’t use ATMs if the power is out. We tell people to put insurance documents in a plastic bag or something waterproof, and take those so they don’t get wet. That way, if you have to reference those materials and you can’t get back to your home, you’ve got those with you. Prescriptions, flashlight with batteries, a radio that’s powered by batteries or a hand crank.”
If Sussex County is facing an emergency, Thomas recommended citizens visit the social media sites for the County, as well as be vigilant with local media outlets.
“We do very robust social media posting. We will typically post on Facebook and Twitter, and that’s a continuously updated all the time. If you have Facebook or Twitter, follow that, because you’re going to get the most up-to-date information.
“We put out a press releases to all the local media outlets when we feel there’s enough of a significant update,” he said. “During Hurricane Irene in 2011, we really hit Facebook and Twitter, and we had over 30,000 views. Then Sandy came in 2012. We — Chip Guy, the County’s communications director, the county administrator and I — we were in here coordinating it.”
Thomas said that during Hurricane Sandy, Guy had said the County needed to up its game, and they started filming updates and posting them on YouTube, gaining tens of thousands of views.
“That really got a good response. In fact, one of the first responses we got from the first one we did was from the governor. When he came down during the storm, he walked in and said, ‘How’s it going Joe? Hey, by the way — love the YouTube video.’
“I said, ‘You want to do one?’ He asked if I was serious and I said, ‘Yeah, we have all the stuff over here, set up.’ So he and I did one about two or three minutes long. What I was doing was giving him an update on the weather. I was telling him what we were doing, what shelters were open, and that evacuation orders were being issued. While we’re talking, there were graphics playing on YouTube of the storm’s movement. Then the governor came on and talked. That was a big thing.”
The County will also use the Delaware Emergency Notification System in times of emergency.
“Whenever we issue evacuation orders or anything of any significance, we push out that information across the telephone lines, too.”
As coastal Delaware is no stranger to storms, Thomas said reporting damage is essential in order for the County and property owners to receive federal recovery funding.
“Once we’ve had an event that has caused some damage, we will push out across all the different venues — social media, press releases — that we need to know what’s been damaged. We’re trying to capture by a quick snapshot to see if we have enough damage for the federal government to come in and provide assistance, or do we have to look at programs at the state level or even at the county level, to try and help people out.”
The “windshield survey” will give a rough outline of where the damage took place and what was damaged.
“Is it structures? Is it downed power lines? That gives us the ability to see from the price-tag standpoint, if you will… FEMA, most times, in order to get individual assistance and where they’ll come in and actually sit down with the property owners and provide them with assistance — typically you have to have at least 25 damaged homes,” he explained. “And, they have to be your primary residence. That’s really one of the biggest issues in this area, because most of the time, when we have flooding on the coast, probably the majority of those homes are seasonal.
“A lot of times we have flooding — Sandy is a prime example, there were homes in Fenwick Island down on 54, Oak Orchard, that had water in them from the flooding, but we just didn’t have enough damage to warrant federal assistance. That’s what people get frustrated with, unfortunately. And that’s where the flood insurance program comes in.”
Sometimes, in the event of an emergency, people are urged to evacuate their homes. Evacuations are ordered by the governor. When that happens, the EOC will release a list of open shelters, as they vary in availability.
“We have a list of established shelters throughout the county that have been labeled as shelters. Why don’t we publicize that list 365 days? We don’t open every single facility for every single event. We don’t want people showing up to a facility on a list, thinking it’s going to open as a shelter when we are not going to be using it.
“Predominately, all these facilities are schools, and a lot of times, particularly in the summertime, when school is out of session, there are renovations going on in the building. So we may not be able to use that facility in that event.”
Thomas said a prime example of their reasoning dates to June 2006, when the town of Seaford had flooding.
“We had a couple of mobile home parks where we had to rescue some people out of. Every school in the Seaford School District that I could reach out and open as a shelter was either going through asbestos abatement or they were renovating their HVAC system. I literally could not use any facility in the Seaford School District. We ended up going to Woodbridge School District. That’s why we typically don’t publicize that list, because we just don’t want people showing up at the doors and being unable to get in.”
The public can get involved
If members of the public are looking to get involved and lend a helping hand during a disaster, Thomas recommends joining the Citizen Corps.
“Citizen Corps is part of the federal government’s Ready.gov campaign. It was started roughly 15 years ago, after the terrorist attacks. It was a program that was trying to get the folks out in the public that want to volunteer and help us.”
Thomas said the country has seen firsthand that, following a disaster, help starts from the ground up.
“So let’s give these folks the training. Let’s make them part of the team, so to speak. Now they can be in those communities and, as soon as something happens, they’re there to help. That’s what is this is all about — helping the community.”
Those who wish to join will be provided with CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training, which includes such knowledge as basic first-aid.
“There’s fire extinguisher training, how to deal with certain things, like flooding, power outages; things like that. It’s training that any citizen can be a part of, but we are actually training them, certifying them, and they will become part of the team that comes together when these sorts of things happen.”
Thomas said he will work with a community to provide training, be it over a weekend or spread out.
“Let us know what suits you best.”
He noted that the Sussex EOC works closely with Ocean City, Md.’s, which also has a Citizen Corps.
“We are looking at possibly bringing our groups together and possibly working together. That way we can improve our numbers and, by working together, provide a better service.”
For those who may face an emergency that requires a call to 911, Thomas recommends taking advantage of Smart911 — a free service offered through the County that allows individuals to create a safety profile that can be seen and used by emergency responders.
“We haven’t had the call come in yet where that information has absolutely 100 percent saved a person’s life, but our dispatchers comment all the time that having that additional information in front of them when we get a phone call is very helpful,” said Thomas, noting that the County began using the service in September 2014.
“You have to realize that when someone dials 911 from a cell phone, all we’re getting is the number of the phone and a GPS coordinate that’s within anywhere from 80 to 150 feet of accuracy. So, I don’t have the name on the phone and I don’t have the address.
“Smart911 makes up for that,” he said. “When you do that safety profile, when you dial 911 from that phone number, all that information displays in front of the dispatcher.”
Thomas said 80 percent of the EOC’s 911 calls are from cell phones, adding that he will go out and speak to communities or organizations, such as the Lions Club, about the service.
“If anyone asks us to speak, we go out and speak to them,” he said.
Currently, the County has roughly 2,900 safety profiles; however, Thomas said he hopes to get more residents to become users.
“From what I’ve been told by the Smart911 folks, we are on par with the rest of the country as far as how many safety profiles there are. I really wish we would get more,” he said, adding that the County has advertised the service on Pandora and iHeartRadio.
The service is in use in more than 40 states across the country, so if a person travels out of the county, chances are their profile travels with them.
“If you’re traveling somewhere in an area or community that has Smart911 capabilities, and God forbid you have to call 911, that information is going to display in front of their dispatchers,” he said. “Washington, D.C., is a Smart911 community. For people for vacation here at the beach from 911 from Washington, D.C., if they have to call 911, that information travels with them. That profile will display in front of us that they entered back in the District.”
Those who create a profile will receive an email or text message every six months reminding them to make sure their profile is up-to-date. Profiles can include specific medical information, such as allergies or a heart condition, cell phone numbers, photos of family members and even family pets. Profile-makers may also include information for first-responders, such as bedroom locations, entry and exit points, and emergency shutoffs.
“It’s a great program,” said Thomas.
For more information about Sussex County Emergency Operations Center, visit www.sussexcountyde.gov/emergency-operations-center. For up-to-the-minute updates during emergencies, follow the EOC on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SussexCountyEOC) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/sussexctyde_eoc).
For a list on items that should be in a hurricane evacuation kit, visit www.sussexcountyde.gov/sites/default/files/PDFs/EVACBOOK3.pdf. Citizens can also learn how to be prepared for an emergency through the Delaware Emergency Management Agency by visiting www.preparede.org.