Viewpoint: Lessons learned from a 200-year storm
In April, a storm of incredible power hammered the East Coast, focused most intensely on Rhode Island. The rainfall was of such magnitude that analysts said it exceeded anything from the past 200 years. Some facilities built to withstand hurricane conditions were overwhelmed by the flooding, forcing residents in some communities to severely limit water use — a threat to public health.
Yet, Woonsocket remained functional despite severe stress. Most notably, its wastewater treatment assets were not significantly damaged. While ours was not the only facility in the eye of the storm that managed to protect its wastewater treatment assets, in retrospect I believe there were two key factors that helped us: extensive planning and our ability to use a private partner’s resources to rapidly staff our facilities 24/7.
The five key learnings below represent our analysis, and are outlined in the hope that they will be useful to cities facing similar disasters.
1. Anticipate the worst.
Although we knew the storm would be strong, the East Coast was not expecting such an aggressive weather event that would directly affect so many communities. While we were ultimately surprised by the magnitude, we were prepared because we took the worst-case scenario into consideration from the beginning.
2. Plan, prepare and practice.
Not only did Woonsocket wastewater plant personnel have access to pre-developed crisis plans, our facility managers and operators developed contingency arrangements from the outset, responding to early reports of incoming storms. That included arranging for additional staffing and equipment, plugging storm drains and sealing buildings, moving equipment to high ground, implementing backup communications plans and sandbagging high-risk areas.
3. Ensure adequate staffing.
Many plant operators were dealing with flooding issues in their own homes while simultaneously working under intense conditions and long hours, so having access to proper staffing was critical. We were able to call on our private operator’s network to provide skilled backup support to our local employees. Staff were pulled from other privately managed facilities in the region that were not as severely affected. Those facilities also lent support staff who handled critical human resources and operational needs, such as ensuring operators were able to take meal breaks and implementing additional safety processes to protect employees.
4. Have access to additional equipment.
When it became apparent that the incoming storm would threaten the plant’s equipment, we again used our private partner’s network to stockpile pumps, equipment and water treatment chemicals from other facilities along the East Coast. If municipalities do not have the benefit of a partner they can rely on to help them garner support and resources, it is crucial that they foster those relationships on their own before a crisis so they can work together and call on each other for support.
5. Know it will be challenging.
Teams must be committed to a rigorous work schedule under challenging conditions. That includes conducting countless equipment maintenance checks, disassembling and reassembling equipment for cleaning, dealing with additional debris that occurs when the collection system is overwhelmed, ruthlessly prioritizing equipment needs and working under very wet and demanding conditions.
I am incredibly proud of the staff at the Woonsocket wastewater treatment plant and the countless municipal and private employees who worked together to keep our facilities online during the worst storm many of us will see in our lifetimes. Their efforts were truly a public service as they helped preserve our precious water quality, kept residents safe and maintained the integrity of the city’s wastewater infrastructure.
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Leo Fontaine has been mayor of Woonsocket, R.I., since December 2009. Before his election, he served on the city council for 16 years, much of that time as its president. Woonsocket retained its private partner, Veolia Water North America, in 1999 to implement capital improvements and provide design/build support for the city’s wastewater facilities.