When meteorologists report that a winter storm is brewing, Bonnie and Dave Percival prepare themselves for the possibility that power outages may trigger a need to convert the generator-powered Fire Department Training Room adjacent to the Town Office in Tenants Harbor (where voting and community meetings also take place) into a hospitable space for community members seeking a place to warm up, get a bite to eat and charge up their cell phones. Members of the St. George Temporary Community Emergency Shelter Committee, the Percivals, if called, will trek down the hill from their home near the St. George School and across the street to the Fire Station to work with other volunteers to get the emergency shelter up and running for as long as it is needed.
The question, the Percivals say, is whether the current emergency shelter is adequate to meet future needs. “In light of what might be happening in terms of natural disasters, the severity of rain, wind, storm events that could be happening, do we need to think longer term of what might be involved?” Bonnie asks.
Town Manager Tim Polky, who is also the town’s Emergency Management Director (EMD), has been actively engaging that question for quite a while. He and other EMDs are concerned about how changing weather patterns that are resulting in longer-lasting hazardous weather events are putting a greater strain on both responders and households, with the result that upgrading shelter facilities is becoming a priority.
“I don’t know if you want to call it global warming but if you look at our weather patterns, we’re getting more rain, our rain events are heavier,” Polky explains. “We’ve just been fortunate that we haven’t seen big snow events, but I think they are coming. With the weather patterns that we are looking at right now, I think we’re going to begin to see a foot of snow and even 18-20 inches every time it snows.”
But it isn’t just severe snowstorms that pose a potential impact on shelters, as Polky also points out. “I’m not so worried about the wintertime as far as the people because I think the people who live here year round are more resilient, but if we had a hurricane in August, with a lot of transient people here, people on vacation, we probably would have to do something significant with a shelter.”
More severe weather may also likely translate into longer power outages, which could mean that even the most resilient members of the St. George community—Polky estimates that fewer than a half of the town is covered by someone who has a generator—would be candidates for a shelter stay. “We’ve had a couple of times where we’ve opened up the shelter and used the shelter as a ‘warming shelter’ where people can come in and get a cup of coffee, get something to eat and charge their cell phones—and that works fine. But if we had a situation where we needed to put some people up for the night we’d have a problem. That’s because there’d be two other things happening at the same time. First, if we got a major situation where the emergency was going to last an extended time, we’d set up our base of operation out there in the training room by the big screen, which is a smart board, which is basically a computer we’d use to go online directly with the state EMA. That leads to space problems because in that situation we would also have a lot of responders that we need to feed and rest while also serving those in the shelter.”
The solution, Polky and the shelter committee believe, is moving the shelter to the St. George School. “The school is now all for it,” Polky says, which was not the case before the school became its own Municipal School Unit. “Being there would not only separate the shelter from the first responders, but there’s also a better kitchen, there’s more room, more shower facilities and restroom facilities.”
The only problem is that the school currently is not equipped with a generator, a cost of about $80,000.
“The generator itself isn’t the big cost,” Polky notes. “The big cost is getting it wired. A lot of people don’t realize that at the school a lot of the wiring goes underground from outside into the building. And the building itself was built in different stages so it is really complicated how we are going to get the wires from the outside into the inside. I’ve talked to a couple of contractors and the best way to do it is to place another conduit into the building from the outside which is where the cost is.”
Polky believes the first draft of the next year’s town budget, at least, will have some provision for reserving money for the generator. But there are competing needs and factors that will have to be taken into consideration before a final budget document is assembled.
In the meantime, Polky and the rest of his Emergency Management team, including shelter committee members like the Percivals, are focused on what can be done now, which will include continuing to run the emergency shelter in the Fire Department Training Room. Aside from the planning work St. George does as part of Knox County Emergency Management, which is also part of state and federal efforts, the team is focused on alerting St. George households to what they can do to shelter successfully at home.
The emergency shelter committee has been refining a handout listing recommendations for the kind of “emergency readiness supplies” that people will likely need when an emergency occurs, whether at home or if they need to stay at the town’s shelter. The handout also includes a confidential form to fill out if someone wants to request some assistance when an emergency arises.
“We’ve especially wanted to stress that the emergency shelter is pet friendly,” Bonnie Percival adds. “One of the largest deterrents to people seeking shelter is that they don’t want to leave their pets.”
But sheltering in place, having the means to do that, Polky believes, is “probably the way we need to push people to go. And what we have been recommending is that if you have a generator and if you are willing to share it with your neighbors, let your neighbors know. We want it to be more neighbors and neighborhoods looking out for each other.”
Having the town’s shelter, whether in its current location or eventually at the school, he adds, is a key backup plan, but he stresses that keeping off the roads in bad weather is also important, especially for the town’s signifiant aging population. “We very strictly and vocally tell everyone if you need to get here we’ll come get you. I’d much rather come and bring people to the shelter than have to pick them up off the side of the road.” —JW
(The St. George Temporary Community Emergency Shelter handouts that the shelter committee has prepared can be obtained at the Town Office, the Jackson Memorial Library, the Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde post offices and at the Community Development Corporation office at 47 Main Street in Tenants Harbor.)
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman