Preparing for devastation: The value of disaster scenario exercises

Vigilant Guard - Westerly, Rhode Island

When Superstorm Sandy crippled the town of Westerly, Rhode Island, the state's architects were ready to respond thanks to a disaster training exercise.

Thanks to a training exercise called Vigilant Guard, a group of Rhode Island architects is ready for rapid response

During the early morning hours of July 30, 2012, a “Category 3 hurricane” hit Rhode Island with devastating force, causing catastrophic damage and overwhelming state and local resources. Fortunately, there was no actual storm. It was a state-wide exercise known as Vigilant Guard, testing a series of first and second responders from Rhode Island and the New England region.

Vigilant Guard was designed around a real-time, simulated disaster scenario that replicated the impacts of a major hurricane hitting Rhode Island. The exercise served to field test and strengthen the existing relationship between the Rhode Island Architects and Engineers Emergency Response Task Force 7 (RI AEER TF-7) and the federal, state, and local governments, plus volunteer partners. Little did we know how quickly our refined skills would be utilized in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy just months later.

With sustained winds of 111 to 130 mph, the Vigilant Guard scenario modeled a storm surge of nine to 12 feet characteristic of a Category 3 hurricane, similar to the Hurricane of 1938 that devastated all of Rhode Island. Extensive residential and commercial building flooding, storm damage to a hospital, a chemical explosion in a manufacturing building, people buried under piles of rubble, and extended power outages were just some of the damage impacts, in addition to overall safety issues for both the responders and the public.

Even with significant studying of disaster response manuals and PowerPoint presentations, watching videos, and attending workshops, when disaster strikes nothing compares to on-the-ground experience. Second best to that are exercises of hazard event scenarios. Watching the local news report on a disaster and its aftermath barely describes the physically taxing experience of being part of a multi-jurisdictional, multi-disciplinary, and multi-skilled responder team. During Vigilant Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency tried to replicate the complexity of managing multiple responders, agencies and stakeholders as best they could by including in the exercise more than 1,100 National Guard troops from Rhode Island and the surrounding states with an almost-equal number of first and second responders.

During Vigilant Guard, RI AEER TF-7 had the opportunity to observe other responder teams in action, build relationships with those teams, experience the ebb and flow of disaster response, and better understand the steps and protocol of damage assessment in the field. Little did we realize that mere months later, the knowledge, skills, and relationships built up during Vigilant Guard would be put to test following Superstorm Sandy.

How Rhode Island responded to Sandy

Less than 24 hours after Rhode Island experienced coastal flooding and storm surge from Superstorm Sandy, RI AEER TF-7 received a request to deploy. With a ready responder calling list, our team was on-site and ready to proceed less than four hours after the call, owing to our tight organizational structure and specific training in both building assessment and deployment safety.

While Rhode Island dodged Superstorm Sandy’s direct impact by approximately 225 miles, the state was caught up in the significant fringes of the storm’s ocean impacts. The state’s southern coast received storm surge and wave action that seriously crippled the towns of Westerly, Charlestown, and South Kingstown.

Rapid response equals rapid recovery; Vigilant Guard helped to make that happen.

Because of our specialized education, training, and experience with Vigilant Guard, RI AEER TF-7 was prepared to answer the call for rapid mobilization to evaluate building safety in affected areas. Being familiar with proper badging, packing a “go bag,” security checkpoint procedures, deployment staging areas, the roles of other first and second responder teams, key field tools and equipment, report forms and protocols, and the structure of the Incident Command System, our efficient response during Superstorm Sandy was greatly aided by our Vigilant Guard experience.

In the Westerly area, there were approximately 800 businesses and homes impacted, and several hundred more in Charlestown and South Kingstown. We were deployed over a period of five days, with four teams on the first three days and two teams on the fourth and fifth days. Teams varied from two to four members. Each TF-7 team was accompanied by a member of the Urban Search and Rescue team.

Due largely in part to the experience gained through Vigilant Guard the State of Rhode Island could quickly compile the economic impact of the storm, based upon the field reporting of RI AEER TF-7 and other deployed teams in the overall disaster response. That immediate and critical field reporting enabled the State to receive more than $39.4 million in support from four Federal disaster relief programs. The accuracy, thoroughness, and speed of the field reporting also meant Rhode Island's disaster relief arrived far in advance of other states along the Eastern seaboard. Rapid response equals rapid recovery; Vigilant Guard helped to make that happen.

We encourage the disaster response community to keep an eye out for disaster scenario exercises taking place in your own community or state—and participate in them.

In March of 2013, the American Institute of Architects presented a National Service Award in recognition of the work of RI AEER TF-7, to quote: “In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, well prepared to lend a helping hand to those affected by the disaster, the men and women of the Architects and Engineers Emergency Task Force (AEER TF) not only showed their commitment to the highest standards of their professions, they displayed a quality of caring and compassion that provided comfort to those who had lost so much, and by their example were a source of hope for the ultimate success of the recovery effort in the months ahead.”

On June 3, 2013, the Town of Westerly, Rhode Island Town Council extended commendations to RI AEER TF-7, proclaiming, “In recognition of this assistance with the response and recovery efforts to restore, renew, and revitalize the Misquamicut area in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and further extends its appreciation to the Rhode Island Architects and Engineers Emergency Response Task Force 7 for its generous and tireless support throughout this challenging endeavor to bring back the beach.”

Having gone through this level of training and seeing the results first-hand, we encourage the disaster response community to keep an eye out for disaster scenario exercises taking place in your own community or state—and participate in them. The practice gained through an exercise like Vigilant Guard proved invaluable, allowing each team to get their timing and rhythm down for rapid evaluations and efficient, consistent reports for each building.

Following a disaster, performing building evaluations in a quick, efficient, and safe manner not only serves to address the safety and welfare of the community but contributes to the disaster relief request made to the federal government. Rapid response addresses the safety and welfare of people and property, and provides the necessary and critical data for the economic wellbeing and rapid recovery of a community. Important work of this sort truly has both human and economic value.

For more on disaster assistance, download the latest edition of the Disaster Assistance Handbook.

Kenneth J. Filarski, FAIA, is principal at FILARSKI/Architecture+Planning+Research. He is also a Certified Planner, a LEED and SITES Accredited Professional, a Certified Flood Plain Manager, and a Certified Disaster Responder and Trainer. This article also features contributions from David Hanrahan, AIA; Don Sansoucy, Assoc. AIA; David Grandpré; Robert Leach; and Jeff Hatcher, AIA.

Image credits

Vigilant Guard - Westerly, Rhode Island

RI Architects and Engineers Emergency Response Task Force 7

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