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Mark Knowles recalls the run-around from Irene

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Ask Mark A. Knowles about Hurricane Irene, and he will talk about the great two-day runaround in August 2011.

And the lessons that helped New York prepare for Hurricane Sandy.

“There was a lot of sitting around, and then it was like, ‘Where do you want us now?’” said Mr. Knowles, director of Jefferson County’s Special Tactics and Rescue team.

Irene was expected to hit New York City, but it took a sudden turn, and the Big Apple was spared. Other portions of New York were not so lucky, however.

Meanwhile, the state had about 20 rescue teams staged in what were thought to be strategic positions, ready to go to work. The STAR team was in Delaware County, ready and waiting. As it turned out, the team of eight, with its big rescue truck and two vehicles towing two boats, was not needed there.

Head up to Keene Valley, the team was told; that is where help was needed. But while en route, team members received new instructions: all bridges were out; they would not be able to get through. Go to Albany was the next directive. And then to Greene County.

“We drove all over the county,” Mr. Knowles said. And yes, they conducted two rescues and recovered a body. But, “by the end of the day, floodwaters there had receded, and they asked us to head up to Old Forge and Tupper Lake,” where bridges were deemed impassable. Another trip in futility.

After two days of bouncing from one county to another, STAR members were told they could return home.

“There was no thought of preplanning back then,” Mr. Knowles said. “New York had never experienced a storm like that. The state never felt a need for preplanning before last year. Most of the preparedness was for another 9/11 terrorist attack.”

Lack of communications was a huge problem, he said, with no common radio system.

“As long as our cellphones were working, we could get by,” he said.

With the Irene experience behind them, fire and emergency personnel from around the state met at Montour Falls early in March for a critique and to set the wheels in motion for better preparation. Among improvements attendees requested were:

n Create a formalized format for communication among teams.

n Persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency to acknowledge water hazards as an essential preparedness issue and make funding available for appropriate training.

nSimplify mechanisms for obtaining grant money for water rescue training and evaluating training standards.

nUse a regional strike team concept to supply personnel and equipment for a disaster response, with each team having a cache of equipment at a base of operations.

nDevelop a system of swiftwater/flood rescue teams that are fast and light, capable of a “swarming” deployment.

References were made to Type I and Type II teams. Mr. Knowles said there are 24 teams in the state, none of which are Type I, which has helicopter and boat availability. Central and Northern New York have only three Type II units, at Binghamton, the Watertown Fire Department and the STAR team, he said.

The critique was heard “loud and clear,” he said. “We gave state officials a wider knowledge of our problems.”

Obviously there was little time for wheels to begin turning before Hurricane Sandy made its ugly arrival in New Jersey and New York on Oct. 29, but Mr. Knowles ranked New York’s preparedness for Sandy at “a six or seven” on a scale of one to 10. That was a definite improvement, he said.

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