A Category 3 hurricane with forces not seen in Eastern Connecticut for nearly 100 years barrels into the mouth of the Connecticut River.
Roads are blocked by downed trees and utility lines. Power is expected to be out for up to a month in some places, and flood waters have made access to core facilities all but impossible.
With years to prepare, however, local governments have stocked up on bottled water, prepared meals and emergency generators to help residents ride out the aftermath until help arrives.
A decade after Hurricane Katrina changed the Gulf Coast’s landscape and two years removed from back-to-back storms that crippled Connecticut’s economy, that scenario is real. But while the skies are still calm, area business development groups are working with their clients to get them ready for the next big storm.
“Everyone that hasn’t planned ahead is going to get stuck. We’re all locked to our smartphones and our Internet, but what are you going to do when your computer goes down?” Paul Yellen, long time emergency management director in Plainfield, Connecticut, asked during a recent table top exercise arranged by PrepareCT, an alliance between the state’s Small Business Development Centers and 16 partners across the state.
The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut is the local partner in the alliance. Bill Sheehan, a member of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, or seCTer, board and an expert in the field of emergency preparedness, led the seminar at Three Rivers Community College.
“Business resiliency and preparedness and the ability to bounce back in the case of a disaster is really economic development, and that’s why seCTer is involved and will be going forward,” executive director Stephen MacKenzie said.
In January 2012, a state commission assembled by Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to examine steps that can be taken to prepare Connecticut for future natural disasters released its findings.
The Two Storm Panel reported that economic damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and then a freak nor’easter two months later topped $750 million and left more than 1.6 million people without power.
Then, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. By February 2013, more than $50 million in federal assistance poured into Connecticut to help with recovery efforts, including $36.7 million worth of low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and businesses.
“We’ve had blizzards, we’ve had excessive rain and flooding, it’s been a whole plethora of things we’ve had that we’ve had to deal with so businesses have to be ready 12 months out of the year to respond to emergency situations,” said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and a member of the Two Storm Panel. “It’s not just making sure public works can open up roads.”
Part of the table top exercise was assembling breakout groups where participants could outline steps they’d take – or have already taken – to gird themselves against a Category 3 hurricane.
Norwich Emergency Management Director Gene Arters laid out a stark scenario for Jay Kaine, loss prevention supervisor for several Shop-Rites, including its Norwich location.
“When that hurricane does hit, even though Norwich has a blue ribbon utility, plan on being without power for a month. Your store, unfortunately, is going to be looted. Not out of viciousness, but it’s going to take 72 hours before government assistance starts arriving, it’s going to be painfully slow,” he said. “Food is not flowing in, people are hungry, babies need diapers, down come those plate glass windows, so you prepare before that hurricane even hits.”
In March 2010, Nutmeg Companies, Inc., a Norwich-based construction firm that opened in 1988 on the banks of the Yantic River, saw its building at 31 New London Turnpike destroyed by flooding that sent 3 feet of water into its offices.
Though the company lost historical files, computers and other equipment, its data was backed up onto servers that allowed the firm to operate continuously out of three trailers until November, when it moved back inside.
“We had over 3 feet of water in our office, and you can’t even really imagine how much stuff you lose,” company co-owner Jason Bugbee said. “Even though we put all the desk drawers on top of the desks, the water was over the top of all of them and what happens to paper when it gets wet is it swells up like crazy.”
Last summer, the company struck a deal with the city that let it relocate to property in the business park using $760,000 worth of local, state and federal funds. In exchange, Norwich officials were able to convert the old location into a buffer zone to ward off future flood threats.
“Being a construction company, our projects go on for over a year, so just a record of everything you do, if you lost that, I don’t know how you could ever recreate it,” Bugbee said. “We actually run a local backup that we take off site every night.”
But, warned Ray Hasson, director of branch operations for CorePlus Federal Credit Union, not every business thinks like Bugbee’s.
That’s why table top exercises like last week’s at Three Rivers are so important, he told participants.
“The things you haven’t picked up on, the things you missed and the things you never thought about, that’s what comes out of this. You’re never, ever going to be fully prepared for the Category 3 hurricane that’s going to take down about 80 percent of the woodland here,” he said.
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