Better coordination key to improved disaster response

Those who care for Connecticut’s residents and those who look out for its trees faced a similar problem during last month’s nor’easter that crippled power for more than two-thirds of the state.

State and local government agencies as well as private-sector groups may be focused on a common issue, but do little to help each other and were particularly unprepared for the level of damage caused both by the Oct. 29 snowstorm or by late August’s Tropical Storm Irene, groups testified Friday before a state study panel.

“It just seems as though we have all of these little silos” of responsibility, Joseph McGee, chairman of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Two-Storm Panel, said Friday. “We’re just not sure how to make it all work.”

Both of the state’s major electric utilities, Connecticut Light & Power Co. and United Illuminating, said in the aftermath of the storms that more intensive trimming of trees in the buffer zones surrounding wires is essential.

The utilities are mandated to perform minimum levels of trimming by state utility regulators as part of the rate-setting process.

But Christopher Martin, director of forestry for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that mandate focuses on keeping wires free of branches that could cause a minor disruption. It does not create a buffer zone that could protect the electric infrastructure from a catastrophic event.

If state government wanted to expand this concept to identify and remove trees that pose a serious risk only in major weather event, the best way to attack that problem would be on a town-by-town basis. “Local implementation would really carry the day,” Martin said.

And nearly all communities have a tree warden and a municipal tree-trimming budget, said Chris Donnelly, DEEP’s coordinator of urban forestry, which involves monitoring the population of trees interspersed throughout communities rather than larger, defined forests.

But those local wardens target trees for pruning or removal if they are in poor health — and not necessarily because they pose a risk to power lines under extreme weather conditions.

State government could require municipalities to add new criteria to their tree-trimming program, but it wouldn’t necessarily be cheap. Donnelly didn’t offer cost estimates, but he noted that about 55 percent of the state is still covered in trees. That’s far cry from the 97 percent that existed in early Colonial times, but still enough to make Connecticut one of the most vegetation-dense states in the nation.

The legislature could simply order communities to expand their tree maintenance work without providing extra funds. But “we are little more than cheerleaders if we do nothing more than tell them what to do with their (existing) budgets,” Donnelly said.

Help for vulnerable residents

Connecticut faces similar challenges in coordinating services when it comes to the health and safety of its vulnerable residents, state Public Health Commissioner Jewel Mullen testified Friday before the panel.

“There are significantly more people in our communities managing serious conditions on a daily basis” than there were one or two decades ago, Mullen told the panel. “And these are not just the frail elderly.”

In addition to the disabled and the mentally ill, the community setting has become increasingly common for patients managing acute chronic conditions over the short-term, the commissioner said. This includes:

  • Patients hospitalized for various types of severe infections who might have enjoyed a longer stay 20 years ago now might recuperate at home after a pharmaceutical regimen for six to eight weeks.
  • New mothers with infants born prematurely can be sent home sooner, but must rely on specialized monitors to ensure the child’s breathing remains healthy at night.
  • Patients suffering with various stages of heart disease can remain at home, provided they have access to an external defibrillator.

And though many of these patients develop contingency plans, “when disaster strikes, these plans often fall apart,” Mullen said. “These people have assistance (requirements)” that need to be recruited into the statewide response.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean more government or even more private-sector resources, Mullen quickly added.

It does mean, though, that state and local governments, working with the private sector, need to improve information-sharing and other collaborative efforts.

For example, municipal health directors might keep track of the vulnerable population within their communities, but unless they are prepared in a crisis — probably without electrical service — to share that information with other groups providing assistance, it would be of limited benefit.

Connecticut also needs to reassess how to reach vulnerable residents isolated by power outages, closed roads and other catastrophe-related obstacles, Mullen added. “It’s an interesting dilemma for us,” she said. “As people cross lifespans they use very different communication methods.”

Fewer households now rely on land lines for telephone service. Others buy it in conjunction with cable television service, which is effectively blocked during a power outage.

This could mean that in some instances, the best response is a low-tech solution, such as using student volunteers traveling on foot to check on shut-ins, Mullen said.

“Public health is going to have to partner with everybody who is part of the response,” she said. “It really is all hands on deck.”

Malloy’s panel is charged with reporting back to the administration in January. Its proposals are expected to be considered in the regular 2012 legislative session, which begins Feb. 8.