Sandy-Spawned Snow Was Wake-Up Call in Western Maryland

By DAVID DISHNEAU | October 29, 2013

The mountain dwellers of far western Maryland know a lot about snow, but a crippling blizzard spawned last year by Superstorm Sandy taught them a painful lesson in emergency preparedness.

Scattershot planning and outdated communications gear caused confusion and delays after a 29-inch snowfall Oct. 29-30 left some Garrett County residents snowbound and without power for more than a week. The problems prompted Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to replace the county’s longtime emergency management chief to help the state improve the ability to respond to weather disasters.

A year later, as the season’s first snowflakes fall, first-responder communications have been upgraded, procedures have been revised, and work on a new emergency operations center at the county airport will be completed. That facility will replace the makeshift command center set up at the county courthouse after the snowstorm.

“We’re moving forward,” said John Frank, the county’s new emergency management director.

The improvements, totaling more than $420,000, were funded mainly by federal grants. Statewide, federal agencies have provided more than $34 million to help people, businesses and local governments recover from the hurricane-fueled storm that Maryland health officials say contributed to 11 deaths in the state.

On Thursday, the federal Interior Department announced more than $12.5 million in grants to restore and protect Maryland’s shoreline communities from powerful storms.

Maryland property damage from Sandy was centered on the lower Eastern Shore, especially Crisfield, more than 300 miles from Oakland. But Garrett County’s calamity was unmatched for its widespread effect in a sparsely populated area. At the peak, nearly 80 percent of the county’s 23,000 Potomac Edison customers were without electricity. Many lost power repeatedly as trees laden with heavy snow crashed onto newly repaired lines.

“Typically, a 3-foot snowstorm doesn’t faze Garrett County. But typically, a 3-foot snowstorm in Garrett County is a dry, powder snow in January or February,” Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ed McDonough said. “The time of the year and the weight of the snow kind of conspired against them as kind of a perfect storm for them.”

Besides spotty communications and operational space constraints, an internal review of the storm response found weaknesses in the local agency’s transportation and technological readiness, computer support, and resource coordination. A lack of a master list of vulnerable individuals caused sheriff’s deputies to waste time making multiple safety checks on people listed by more than one health or social services agency, Sheriff Rob Corley said.

“We had everybody with their own list and we repeated checking on people. When we checked on one three times, if we were efficient in our process, we could have checked on three people,” he said.

Former county emergency management chief Brad Frantz was working on a contractual basis last October, having retired three months earlier after 38 years in the job. In January, the governor’s office ordered him replaced with a full-time county employee who, McDonough said, would be more hands-on and more likely to react quickly to a crisis.

“It was two days into the storm before they started calling for state assistance. Had they had a full-time person there, they might have started that process a little sooner,” he said.

Frantz said in January he had no regrets.

“I unapologetically feel that the job that everyone in this county did was exemplary and that most of the problems created were created by the state people that were sent here to assist us,” he said.

Robert Gatto, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said the equipment upgrades and revised procedures have made the county better able to respond to any disaster.

“When I went to sleep that night I was thinking,’Well, we’ll get snow and life will go on,”‘ he said. “But it really woke us up, so to speak.”

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