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Irene's Anniversary: Is West Hartford More Prepared?

Following Irene, October's storm, and the state's recent disaster preparedness drill, West Hartford and other towns in the area have made changes to their emergency operations plans.

Since Irene made landfall exactly one year ago, towns all over Connecticut have had unprecedented opportunities to test out their emergency response plans several times, and officials throughout the area say that after all that practice, they are much better prepared to respond to the next disaster.

Torrential rain began falling on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011, as what was then barrelled up the east coast. By the time it reached Connecticut, Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

Although many in the area feared the wrath of Irene, damage was most severe along the shoreline. However, West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said Monday, "At the time, it was the most dramatic public safety event we had ever had."

One year ago today and declared a local state of emergency for the first time ever, Slifka said. At the height of the storm, over 6,000 CL&P customers — about 21-22 percent of the town — were without power, and . The town opened its emergency shelter at the , but only about 15 residents used it.

was particularly hard hit, with flooding and over 60 percent of the town without power at the height of the storm. About residents lost power due to Irene.

Other also experienced power outages and flooded roadways. , as well as some other towns, postponed the first day of school.

Flooding was a major problem in Farmington, with only the Flood of 1955 topping Irene's effects. It was the first time since 1955 that Farmington residents had to be evacuated, and Town Council Chairman Tom Jeff Hogan said it was scary, with water approaching the deck of the bridge in Unionville.

Officials feared that parts of the town would become inaccessible. "A significant part of our debriefing from that storm was how to modify our emergency action plan in case we had to change locations of our operations," Hogan said.

Of course no one could have predicted at the time that the biggest test of towns' emergency preparedness would come just two months later, with the freak October snowstorm.

"October was such a lengthy event, and the town did really well weathering that event," Hogan said. However, as result of subsequent debriefings, Farmington has added money to its capital improvement budget for another generator and has worked to streamline communications.

"We have met time and time again with the utilities and other Farmington Valley towns," Hogan said. He believes that communications with the utilities will be handled much more effectively in the future.

Farmington has also shored up its infrastructure, ensuring that resources, including people, will be available in town to man emergency facilities.

In Simsbury, Director of Administrative Services Tom Cooke said that after Irene and the October storm, the town has "done a lot to fine-tune our response." Efforts have included encouraging residents to sign up their cellphones for the town's reverse-911 system.

Long-term initiatives being considered in Simsbury include developing plans to shelter a larger number of residents, which would require appropriate staffing and equipment, as well as procuring more portable generators.

One of the other things being considered in Simsbury is the location of things. "If we had to shelter people long-term, where would we put trailers," Cooke said.

The recent statewide also helped flesh things out,  said Cooke.

"We're infinitely more prepared, and I think we did pretty well last time," said Slifka regarding West Hartford's emergency procedures. "Irene was the warm-up; [the October storm] was trial by fire," he said.

After the two storms and , Slifka believes the town is as prepared as it possibly could be. "But that's only half of the equation, the other half is how well prepared the other organizations are," he said.

Slifka said that West Hartford's relationship with CL&P has improved dramatically. "There's been a radical change from a year ago in our contact with the power company," he said. Although a CL&P liaison visited the emergency operations center when it opened for Irene, the relationship was very informal.

"Now, after what we went through [in October], we expect it to be almost military-like. From the town's perspective, it's given us the opportunity to sharpen our skills," said Slifka.

"What last year taught us is that you can't be too prepared," Cooke said.

"When the news stories started coming out about Irene's anniversary, I'd almost forgotten about it, because for us, the October storm was dramatically so much bigger," said Slifka.

The positive outcome of weathering several major storms is that officials in all area towns are much more prepared.

"The more we do it, the more comfortable we feel," said West Hartford's Interim Fire Chief Gary Allyn, who heads the town's emergency operations team, following the July disaster preparedness drill.

"We expect to have more of these storms in the future due to a more volatile weather pattern. I think the more we work with these agencies, the better," Hogan said.

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