West Columbia’s emergency preparedness is a team of competence
When large numbers of people are counting on you, like they were this week with Tropical Storm Irma, city of West Columbia officials must be ready to respond.
That is true when any emergency is approaching. In those cases, the city’s staff transitions from its normal operating schedule to hyper-mode. Anna Huffman, the city’s public information officer explains the process.
“The City’s staff comes together to communicate about the next steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the residents and visitors as well as our employees,” Huffman said. “We consider different ways to communicate in case of cellular service and power outages, as well as communicating in extreme conditions such as rain, wind, and snow.”
West Columbia Assistant Police Chief Scott Morrison explained his perspective as it relates to law enforcement.
“We meet with emergency operations personnel to make a plan if a storm is approaching,” said Morison.
Police officers, on their regular patrols, are the eyes on the ground during a severe weather event, or any other crisis situation. But it’s part of a coordinated effort.
“We get with Public Works Director Jamie Hook,” said Morrison, “and stage our operations.”
Huffman said many of the city’s departments are an essential part of emergency operations.
“The finance department has to plan to make emergency funds accessible in case of purchases that need to be made if city offices are closed,” she said. “This is done with emergency POs (purchase orders.) The GIS Department is involved behind the scenes creating and updating maps letting the public know about road closures. The maps are then shared with the media, on the city’s website, and with social media, by the PIO, to get the information to the public.”
Hook said the public works department follows a procedure similar to that of the police department, and the rest of the city’s offices.
“We get ready as many days ahead of an event as we can,” said Hook. He described the process before the Hurricane-Irma storm that blew in on Monday.
“Days before we sharpened all the chain saws and got them ready,” said Hook. We made sure our generators were operational. We checked fuel levels and filled up all the gas tanks. We do everything we can to be ready to go when it’s time.”
West Columbia Fire Chief Wyatt Coleman said he calls in an extra crew of up-to seven firefighters, to deal with an expected higher-than-usual call volume in an emergency.
“We don’t want the crew to have a problem getting here if we need them,” Coleman said.
He also said he and Deputy Fire Chief Marquis Solomon are both on duty in case crews have to respond to multiple calls.
Coleman said there were 18 calls – more than four times the average- for fire department personnel on Monday, during the storm.
When there is a “hot wire” after a tree falls on a power line, the fire department needs to clear the site to avoid a dangerous setting, Coleman said. He also said fire department personnel prepares its equipment beforehand to ensure it’s operational.
In the case of public works, crews swing into action before an emergency. Hook said personnel from the West Columbia Sanitation Department were on call Saturday, two days from the projected onslaught of the storm.
“The sanitation department ran its routes,” said Hook. “They removed debris from the streets so it would not be blown away in the storm. They also cleared the storm drains of debris so they would not be obstructed.”
In addition to removing items that could clog drains or become airborne projectiles, West Columbia Public Works emergency preparedness staff monitors for the flooding of the city’s roadways.
Crews from public works, beforehand, stage cones in areas that are prone to flooding. When police officers are on patrol, as a storm ensues, those cones are placed at sites to block motorists from high water hazards.
Morrison said fortunately, the cones were not used very much for the Irma-related storm on Monday.
“The rain was not that hard,” said Morrison. He compared this week’s weather event with other storms, including the October 2015 flood and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“We have had three in a row,” Morrison said. “This time we got about three inches of rain in a day-and-a-half. The wind made it seem like it was raining harder that it was, but the rain was not as bad as it has been.”
Hook, Morrison and Coleman said the storm could have been worse.
“There was no damage or erosion to Riverwalk,” said Hook. That was a relief, he said, since Riverwalk was just re-opened after it was repaired from damage rendered by previous weather events that hit in West Columbia.
West Columbia Mayor Bobby Horton said the level of preparedness is no surprise.
“We have a competent, quality staff, that works hard for our residents,” Horton said.
Regardless of the impact, the experience and skill of the West Columbia team is prepared to react to emergencies. For that the city’s residents can be thankful.