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  • Last modified 8 days ago (July 10, 2019)

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Disastrous communication

Amid a flood of good deeds washing up in the wake of high water over the Fourth of July weekend were troubling pieces of debris hinting of serious lapses in county emergency procedures.

As usual, firefighters were models of preparedness and sacrifice. After monitoring roadways and assisting motorists and others in their own communities, volunteers from Peabody, Lincolnville, and elsewhere took time out of their own holiday weekends to travel to the other side of the county to help relief efforts in Durham — not just once but seemingly every day throughout the weekend.

Fire departments are among the county’s most harmonious treasures. Each has its own personality and tone, but together they perform as a well-rehearsed symphony, putting great effort into giving an appearance of effortlessly handling everything from preparedness to recovery. Everyone knows his or her part and performs under whatever baton happens to be directing.

Switching metaphors, it’s a system that, despite a few leaking tank trucks, really holds water. The rest of the county’s emergency system is what constantly seems to spring leaks.

As floodwater from Durham poured into already full Marion Reservoir on the Fourth, it quickly become obvious pressure would have to be released, very likely in urgent and potentially devastating ways.

Whether the Corps of Engineers aggravated the problem by not releasing water earlier is something for expert hydrologists to investigate.

What’s clear even to a casual observer is that whatever information federal workers passed on to county workers about emergency releases from the reservoir failed to make its way to the people who needed it most — residents whose homes stood squarely in the path of 23½ tons of water the reservoir began releasing every minute to lower its dangerously record-high water level.

Also not getting word in timely manner during a disaster-laden weekend were neighbors of a 75-year-old former Lincolnville mayor, stuck in mud a few miles from his home for two days without food, water, or phone.

Relatives had notified dispatchers he was missing Friday night, but an official notification was not broadcast to area law enforcement officers for more than 13 hours, according to recordings of police broadcasts. When a deputy finally showed up to interview neighbors, one of them had just discovered his location, and within a couple of hours, the former mayor was rescued and taken to a hospital for treatment of serious dehydration.

The quick rescue might have happened 13 hours earlier, but apparent breakdowns in communication meant he had to spend an extra night lying in a ditch.

Meanwhile, at 180th and Remington Rd., lack of warning about an intentionally released tidal wave of destruction heading his way many hours after surface flooding had receded cost a resident thousands in damages and could have cost him his life.

It’s great to see emergency managers helping with recovery and filling out forms to get federal aid. But emergency management shouldn’t be entirely after the fact. And emergency communication needs to live up to its name and be done as if the matter truly were an emergency.

One thing firefighters don’t have is a lot of bureaucracy. They meet and talk, and they train a lot. They also go after grants from time to time. But they don’t stop and not fight a fire because they think they can get more grant money if they do nothing.

That appears to be what Marion is doing with an ever-expanding bank collapse that now is threatening to take a portion of Elm St. with it. Federal emergency grants might pay for 90% of the repair, but federal conservation grants have the potential to pay 100% — provided the city does nothing. So the city is rolling the dice and hoping Elm St. doesn’t roll down the bank in the meantime.

Volunteers like the firefighters often seem to have a better handle on reality than do bureaucrats working full-time for government.

Take Marion Senior Center, for example. Its main purpose is to serve a meal. When its cook quit, it couldn’t do that for a week — despite the fact that at least three other government workers were still on the payroll and could have pitched in the way a firefighter would have. They didn’t even proactively call patrons to warn them. Most showed up only to find a sign on the door saying no food would be served.

Then there are reports of the county transfer station refusing to accept debris from Durham flooding.

We don’t care what the bureaucratic, legalistic reasons might have been — just as we don’t care what the three other senior center employees might have been assigned to do.

When disaster strikes, everyone needs to pitch in and do whatever’s necessary, and communications systems need to keep people informed. That’s how true Americans deal with diversity. Anyone who needs an example need look no further than his or her community’s volunteer fire department.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 10, 2019

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