Bucks County officials want more residents to sign up for emergency alerts, while Delaware County is developing quicker responses to floods using volunteer crews. FEMA recovery centers have opened across the region, while Pennsylvania officials were preparing to request more federal aid.
Three weeks after the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged the region, emergency response officials are still dealing with its aftermath. They’re also hoping the unprecedented storm will prompt residents to prepare for the next one.
With record-breaking river crests and rainfall, Ida left a grim lesson in its wake. As public officials and responders assess how to adapt for the next weather disaster, they said one of the first steps is helping the public do the same.
“As severe weather keeps barging through the front door of so many Americans, we have to start [saying]: ‘This is about me. This is about my family and my neighbors. I need to know what to do during the moment of crisis,’ ” said Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety and the former head of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.
Ida caused destruction and deaths in Louisiana before downgrading and moving north, killing more than 50 people from Pennsylvania to New York. Its unprecedented floods and tornadoes — which caused more than $100 million in damage in Pennsylvania — came at a time when climate change is causing storms to be more intense.
Communities are “still struggling to recover,” State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), said after the House and Senate voted Tuesday to extend the state’s emergency declaration until Oct. 27, a move that ensures state and federal emergency officials can continue working together on the recovery. He pointed to tornado-hit Upper Dublin and Horsham, where, as in other areas, residents were left homeless.
Those affected across the region are still cleaning up and applying for federal assistance. Impacted Pennsylvanians were eligible as of Monday to apply for temporary disaster unemployment assistance, FEMA centers had opened in Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties and were planned in Bucks and Philadelphia, and the U.S. Small Business Administration opened a business recovery center at the Falls of the Schuylkill Library.
As more climate-related weather disasters occur across the country, they change the way Americans think about whether it will happen to them. In the U.S. and world, people are adapting to the likelihood of facing disasters they’d never experienced before — but sometimes only after one blows through.
“You just don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, this is so atypical, it’ll never happen again,’ ” said Brian Gerber, co-director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security at Arizona State University.
Pennsylvania has seen a 10% increase in precipitation over the last 50 years, and it is projected to be 8% higher than it is now by 2050 unless something changes, said the state’s transportation secretary, Yassmin Gramian, who was among officials citing Ida as they announced the Wolf administration’s climate action plan on Wednesday.
Learn from experience
Experts say the new challenges are shaped by the unpredictability of tropical storms and flash flooding; a shortage of volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel; and floods and tornadoes in areas that never before experienced them.
“We know that we’re going to be impacted … but a lot of times we don’t know where they’re going to occur until they start occurring,” said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Randy Padfield, who said state workers were finishing damage assessments but would continue to refine storm procedures. “Our ability to anticipate it’s going to happen here in this city or this township or this borough is what’s missing.”
That means the public needs to be prepared. Residents should ensure emergency alerts, such as those from the National Weather Service, are enabled on their smartphones or purchase a weather radio; sign up for their county’s text-message ready-alert system, such as Ready Philadelphia; and have plans for evacuating and for sheltering in place, experts said.
Several said they hoped residents would remember two things: Never drive into standing water, no matter how shallow it looks, and do not wade into a flooded basement if the electricity is still on.
It also means not counting on first responders to save you, say emergency services managers in the region. Though they rescued hundreds of people across the counties, some stressed that they cannot always save people who drive into standing water or immediately reach every affected pocket in a fast-moving, widespread flood.
That’s particularly true given the shortage of volunteer emergency responders that has grown over decades.
“The public needs to take these weather events serious just like emergency services people do,” said Norristown Fire Chief Tom O’Donnell. “People need to understand that we can’t be there to rescue everybody.”
Emergency managers also say people who live near rivers, streams, or areas prone to flooding should not go to sleep when heavy storms are predicted and should seek higher ground when a National Weather Service alert instructs them to do so.
The public should create disaster plans and prepare supplies using guidance from ready.gov, and they should memorize flood and tornado safety tips, experts said.
And those plans could go beyond their own household. Montgomery County emergency services spokesperson Todd Stieritz said local volunteer fire companies would welcome calls from people asking “what they can do to help.”
But the other major challenge is getting people to take warnings seriously. People tend to underestimate the risk: “They generally think it pertains to someone else,” Wright said, and “have this sense that they’re going to be OK.”
A Philadelphia spokesperson noted that the city is at the bottom of the drainage areas for both the Delaware River and the Schuylkill.
Delaware County responders learned that people who took an initial flash flood warning seriously didn’t always realize that the waters continued rising for hours. That made it hard to sustain the sense of urgency that might have prevented people from inadvertently taking risks like driving into flooded areas, said county emergency services director Tim Boyce.
Bucks County used its alert system to send warnings about continually rising water the day after the storm, Kenny said — but barely 2% of the county’s population has registered for the alerts, prompting officials to start looking at how they can better publicize the system.
“I’m sure there will be things as leaders in the Southeast we talk about … [how can we] respond a little differently the next time this happens,” said Bucks County emergency services director Audrey Kenny, whose office, like others, is planning in the coming weeks to assess their storm response. “We have certainly learned a lot over the past three months.”
An accurate perception of risk is what some local leaders were hoping people across the state would take away — just as Californians have learned to prepare for annual wildfires and Texans guard against future power outages — while Ida is still fresh in their minds.
“It creates a critical moment of learning,” said Wright, “that says: I can’t just ignore this; it can and does happen here.”