Kingston dodged the worst destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy. But the 24 hours between Monday morning, when the city set up its first-ever emergency operations center and Tuesday afternoon, when emergency crews stood down, offered plenty of drama — including a hazardous water rescue from a flooded sewage treatment plant and an alderman thrust into the unfamiliar role of chief executive in the midst of a major crisis.
As forecasters began warning of the impending “Frankenstorm” last week, Mayor Shayne Gallo was out of town on a Caribbean vacation. Thus, it fell to Common Council president and acting mayor Jim Noble to oversee the city’s storm response. It was a role, the veteran politician admits, that he had had little preparation for.
“I wasn’t really involved at all in Hurricane Irene,” said Noble of last year’s storm which flooded the Rondout and numerous other places in the city. “But there needed to be somebody at the top to make the final decisions and coordinate everything.”
Over the weekend, Noble said, he attended a series of meetings with the county’s Emergency Preparedness Committee, city department heads and Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III, and watched an online seminar on disaster preparedness. By Sunday, a disaster plan had been put in place which included — for the first time, according to Noble — the creation of an Emergency Operations Center for the city. Located in a conference room on the second floor of police headquarters at Garraghan Drive, the EOC would function as a dispatch center and headquarters with representatives from all city departments in one room around the clock during the worst of the storm. The center also served as a communications center with extra dispatchers on hand to handle an expected spike in calls for service. According to Police Chief Egidio Tinti, previously, each department had maintained individual command posts during crises. Tinti said that creating an EOC with representatives from the city’s police, fire, public works, recreation and departments and CitiBus helped smooth communications and sped up the flow of information.
“When you get a call or you need some information there’s a representative right there in the room with you,” said Tinti. “Having that face to face interaction makes a difference.”
Flooding was anticipated
The EOC activated at 7 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 29. A little later in the morning, Tinti and Deputy Chief John Wallace attended at conference at the County Office Building where county officials presented the most up-to-date information on the storm, including predictions of a cresting tide around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday that was expected to cause heavy flooding around along the city’s Rondout Creek and Hudson River waterfront. Armed with the information, police began calling downtown residents and business owners, and going door to door, warning of potential flooding and offering information on evacuation plans, including the opening of the Andy Murphy Neighborhood Center on Broadway as an emergency shelter. Police also created lists of contacts for people in the flood zone and a record of residents who they had been unable to contact. Department of Public Works personnel, meanwhile, responded to the new forecast by building a seven-foot earthen berm around the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which stands on the Rondout Creek on East Strand. Plant supervisors Alan Winchell and Richard Terpening volunteered to remain at their posts to keep the sewage treatment facility operating through the storm.
As the storm moved in on Monday Afternoon, all city departments added extra personnel to deal with the emergency. At the fire department, Chief John Reinhardt activated all of the city’s volunteer firefighters while brining extra professionals on for the overnight shift. Cops working the Monday afternoon shift were held over into the evening hours. City workers also scrambled to secure and set up emergency equipment, including generators for City Hall and the shelter at the neighborhood center.
Sandy’s early-morning wrath
As the night progressed and the worst of the storm lashed Kingston, emergency workers answered at least 40 storm related calls for service. While police closed off streets in flood-prone areas, firefighters responded to calls for downed power lines, evacuations, flooding and a transformer fire. The crisis came with the high tide at 1:30 a.m. According to Noble, Rondout Creek crested at 9.2 feet, more than a foot above the storm surge caused by Hurricane Irene. Water flooded over the berm around the sewage treatment plant shorting out a backup generator, submerging machinery and trapping Winchell and Terpening inside until firefighters, using a boat borrowed from the Recreation Department, were able to reach and rescue them.