Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013
Page: 1A

A report commissioned after last year’s derecho recommends state government and other entities institute backup communication methods, do a better job of communicating with the public and purchase lots and lots of generators before the next big storm comes our way.

Strong winds caused by the June 29, 2012, derecho damaged buildings, uprooted trees and took down power lines across the state, leaving up to 1.6 million West Virginia residents without electricity for days.

About two weeks later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned an “after action report” to review the state’s response to the storm. That report was released on Wednesday evening, along with a 19-page summary.

Many of the report’s recommendations are focused on backup power and communication methods in an emergency.

High winds during last year’s storms knocked out phone lines and cellular towers in the state. Other cell towers stopped functioning in subsequent days as their backup power sources ran out.

“Many of the findings and recommendations included in this Review are common sense conclusions that can be implemented with ease,” the report says. “Often it is the ‘easy fixes’ that can make the most difference.

“The path forward requires immediate action to ensure that the lessons of the past will contribute to the successes of the future.”

The report recommends state, county and local officials develop alternative communication plans – making use of battery-powered radios and texting, for example – to better transmit and collect information.

The report also advocates the creation of a statewide emergency text messaging system to keep the public better informed, as well as increasing the use of social media services.

“We needed to streamline communication and, in particular, we are now looking into alternative methods to be able to educate the public even when the entire state lacks electricity,” Tomblin said in a press release Wednesday.

The report also focuses on emergency power and generator needs, recommending that radio stations, telecommunication companies and public service districts all have backup plans when the power goes out.

The report found that although public service districts play a vital role in water and sewer services, they currently have no access to alternative power.

Generators became a prime target for thieves following last year’s derecho. Frontier Communications had 20 generators stolen, and police were able to recover only five.

The report recommends utilities coordinate with local law enforcement to patrol the areas near generators. State Police patrolled near generators following another round of widespread outages last fall after Hurricane Sandy and generator thefts “dropped significantly,” reviewers found.

Reviewers recommended power restoration efforts be prioritized to first ensure “preservation of life” and public safety and then to move on to the largest service areas.

Colleges and universities also should be considered high priority in power restoration efforts since they serve large groups of people, the report says.

Utility companies should have designated contacts within the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and should increase their efforts to cut trees around utility lines, it says.

In what probably comes as a surprise to many state residents – especially those who waited in long lines at gas stations after the derecho – the after action review claims “there was not a gasoline shortage in West Virginia.”

“There was, instead, a perceived shortage because West Virginians rushed to the pumps in a panic, exhausting the supply on hand before it could be restocked,” the report said.

A footnote in the report acknowledges a real shortage did exist in some areas of the state, where panicking customers overwhelmed stations.

“In these locations, the panic caused the shortage,” the report said.

Since gas shortages made it difficult for emergency personnel and utility workers to fill their vehicles and generators, the report recommends the Department of Homeland Security begin rationing gasoline during future statewide emergencies.

The report also encourages private gas stations to set aside certain pumps during emergencies to be used only by emergency vehicles.