Bethany gets lesson in emergency prep


On Saturday, Sept. 22, some Bethany residents received important information concerning family emergency preparedness. Led by Ralph Mitchell, director of public safety for Bethany Beach, residents attending a free workshop were informed of how to better ready themselves in the case of an emergency situation. A presentation was provided by members of Delaware’s Emergency Management Agency, and more specifically, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

“Disasters can happen anywhere in Delaware,” said Mitchell, “Even right here in Bethany Beach. Being a coastal state and coastal community, we are very vulnerable to hurricanes and intense coastal storms and inland flooding. Being prepared for disasters now can go a long way towards protecting you and your family later.”

Preparation is among the top actions to take in order to ensure the safest result, he said.

“Evacuation is always a hot topic,” said Mitchell, who provided some answers to some of the most frequently asked question in this area concerning evacuations.

• Can I be forced to evacuate the town?

“Technically, a resident can be forced to evacuate their home,” he said. “Title 20 of Section 31.17 of the Delaware Code gives law enforcement the authority to direct and compel the evacuation of all or part of the population from any area within the state that is necessary for the preservation of life. When things like this occur, we will strongly recommend, and go just shy of physically removing you from a home; but, technically, if push came to shove, yes, we could.”

• Can the mayor of Bethany Beach order an evacuation?

“Again, the answer is yes,” said Mitchell. “While in most cases, we would wait for evacuation to come from a state level, that being out of the governor’s office, if a disaster is localized here, the mayor, chief of the fire company and chief of police can evacuate the town or particular sections of town. For instance, if there was a chemical spill and we needed to evacuate a block or two blocks, we can.”

• Does the town of Bethany Beach have an evacuation plan and how does it work?

“Yes, we have one,” he said, “and how it works is the town is divided into sectors. We have people who would go door-to-door trying to make contact with residents, passing out evacuation orders. Simultaneously, a City Watch automated system, which we have here at town hall, would be sending a pre-recorded message.Your phone would ring, and if you were not there, we would leave a message that would advise residents of the evacuation in affect.”

• How long does it take for the town to evacuate?

“I can’t answer that,” Mitchell said, “because how fast you evacuate is left up to you. A few years ago, we did encounter a threatening coastal storm where we recommended that people evacuate, and we made contact with everybody in town in about four hours. How fast you can leave town is up to you. Unfortunately, where Bethany is located, our evacuation routes are very restricted and minimal. You have Route 1 to the north, and we’ve already been told, beyond any doubt, that should any major storm threaten the area, the Indian River Inlet bridge will be closed [due to high winds], so the amount of time you have to get across there is restricted.”

This leaves Route 1 to the south, Route 26 in Bethany, Ocean View and Millville, and Route 54 in Fenwick Island to the west. “All these roads are marked as evacuation routes, and DelDOT would swing into action in such an emergency, labeling the safest and most effective routes.”

• Where are shelters located for refuge?

“There are a number of shelters in the county and in the state,” said Mitchell. “I do have a list, but we do not provide that information to the public, and it’s for good reason. All of those shelters, likely, would not be open. The county and state, along with the Red Cross, would determine which shelters would be open, depending on the type of disaster we would be encountering. Some shelters may be in a safe area, but some may not. Once they decided which shelters were appropriate, that information would be given to the media, and you would be able to get that from your media sources.”

Shelters are also available for people with special needs throughout the county. This information would also be made known to the public with the release of acceptable shelter locations.

• What do I do about my pets?

“During Hurricane Katrina,” said Mitchell, “lives were lost because people refused to leave without their pets. I was told by Sussex EOC a few weeks ago that they were nearing confirmation for two shelters for the county that would allow you to take pets along with you.” Pet owners, although they would be in the same building as the animals, would likely be restricted in physical interaction with the animals, due to health reasons.

April Willey and Erik Anderson, both certified with Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA), are employed by the state and were on hand Saturday to provide information.

“This is one of the best jobs in the world,” said Willey, who is a member and representative of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). “I get to meet people who want to give back to their community, and they’re doing phenomenal things in their areas. In Sussex County alone, we have 1,200 people registered with the RSVP office that do community outreach, and 90-plus types of programs.”

“Emergency preparedness is indeed a priority,” said Willey. “We need to know what we’re going to do if and when a storm comes, and if there is a coastal storm coming that’s going to reach a magnitude of where our lives are in jeopardy, we need to know what to do now. We don’t need to do something two days before it hits.”

She worked with Sussex County Council and DEMA to help develop the Sussex County Citizens Corps Council, which, fueled by citizen response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., encourages citizen response throughout the community and preparedness between friends and family.

Willey experienced the infamous storm of 1962, one of the worst on record throughout Delaware history.

“I was 7 years old when it hit,” she said. “I was in Lewes, and after that storm, Lewes was completely transformed. That wasn’t even a hurricane; it was just a strong nor’easter. This is something that can happen to any of us.”

Educating the public is one of the major dilemmas that face organizations like RSVP, but Willey said the group does have some advantages.

“You know who lives in your development,” she said. “You know the widows, the widowers. You know those who are handicapped. You know who has pets and who doesn’t. Who better to take care of each of you than the ones who know you and care about you?”

Preparation is among the first steps to take in order to stay safe, she noted.

“A survival kit is essential,” she said.

DEMA has issued a list of disaster kit materials, with everything from flashlights and a whistle to proper food and water supplies. It is suggested that each person have at least one gallon of fresh water on hand for each day they could be in an emergency situation. Canned foods, including meats, fruits, vegetables and soups, are preferred. Freeze-dried meals can pose as some of the most practical survival foods, but kits should include a manual can opener.

Medical and insurance documents and prescriptions and vitamins should not be left out. Garbage bags, toilet paper, matches and a small fire extinguisher are other items often overlooked.

“Some of these things sound obvious, but many people forget these things,” Willey said.

In the event that the town is evacuated, there may be restrictions upon reentry, Mitchell warned.

“Given the situation,” said Mitchell, “the government may require proof that you are a property owner, and not just a resident. There have been situations where homeowners have been allowed back in town limits during the daytime.” Due to this restriction, it is advised that before leaving, residents take with them proof of ownership of their home, be it tax records or deeds.

Most of these items should be kept in water-tight, zip-top bags, labeled and stored in a conveniently accessible bin or duffel bag, or something similar, and kept in a central area of the home where it is easy to retrieve. There is other helpful information, though, other than a list of survival supplies.

“Communication is very important in emergency situations,” Willey noted. “You are going to need two contacts: one close by you can call, who can help you check in with others and someone you can let know that you’re OK. You also need someone out of state, like a family member who lives far away. You may lose power in the area, or phone lines may be down.

“You need two family meeting places, too,” she added. “As you already know, you have to have somewhere to meet up if everyone has to leave your house in the event of a fire. You should also establish a second location, in case you need to get further from the house — somewhere to say, if I’m not at the house, this is where I’ll be.

“The plan needs to be put into action,” Willey noted. “As a family or team, you need to practice it, you need to discuss it, you need to know it. These are all common sense things that we may not have really thought about before.”

Updated and current information is vital. Accurate medical information and phone contacts need to be checked.

Willey referenced the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans from two years ago. “Everyone that’s out there working isn’t going to be able to get to you right away,” she said. “You need to be able to take care of yourself for an amount of time.” In the event of an emergency, it is recommended that enough supplies are on hand to live off for at least five days.

Anderson, who works closely with the Delaware Animal Disaster Services, (DADS) noted that there are extra precautions to take for Fluffy and Fido. DADS was formed through support from the RSVP program and the SPCA.

“Pets are a very important,” he noted. “If an area isn’t safe for you to be in, you can bet that it’s not safe for your pet, either.”

Collars, pet tags and photos are recommended for proper identification in the event that people and their pets are separated. A leash, food and water, with dishes and plastic bags, are also important to keep nearby. A dog or cat would also enjoy its favorite toy and snacks in case time away from home is drawn out. Pet first-aid kits, which can be found at most vets and pet stores, also come in handy. Make sure vet records and emergency telephone numbers are kept in an accessible place, too.

Living in the coastal region of Delaware, many have witnessed the winds and flooding that are brought on by heavy storms. Few, however, have experienced nature’s fury first-hand.

Gretchen Sprawl, who has lived in Ocean View with her husband since last December, was born and raised in New Orleans, and experienced the wrath of the third-worst hurricane on record in the United States. Evacuating in a timely and conscious matter was one of her key points.

“There’s no such thing as being too prepared,” she said. “You need to be ready in any event. It’s your life, and it’s too important to take a risk.”

Although much of their property and belongings were destroyed and lost in the storm, the Sprawls had their lives. She sat in traffic while leaving her home, bound for Texas, early in the morning, avoiding gridlock. What was normally a six-hour commute was drawn into a 17-hour one for those who waited until later in the day.

“A lot of people deny that something like this will happen here or happen to them, but given this area, it’s really a matter of ‘when,’ rather than ‘if.’ All it takes is that one time.”

More information, including pamphlets with emergency contact numbers throughout the state, DEMA’s Family Disaster Kit Materials and other emergency packets can be found at the Bethany Beach Town Hall, or by visiting the following Web sites: www.DEMA.org and www.seniorcorps.gov/about/programs/rsvp.asp.