Networking to Improve Emergency Response

By Rich Weisman

As I watched the progression of Hurricane Isaac several weeks ago, I thought back to 2003 when Hurricane Isabel impacted my water system in Virginia and caused local schools to close. Water and wastewater utilities are vulnerable to threats such as hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, and other natural and man-made disasters. Water systems are not often impacted during emergencies that may affect other aspects of a community, but when a disaster does impact a utility, they work diligently to restore services as quickly as possible. (My colleague Laura Flynn imagined a day without water as part of our blog series for Preparedness Month). Mutual assistance programs like the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, a network of utilities helping utilities, provide access to specialized resources needed to restore water services.

The Minnesota Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network was activated in June when Duluth and surrounding areas experienced significant flooding that washed out roads and interrupted 911 service. Through the network, seven communities asked for and received assistance in the form of water pumps and support personnel. Several years ago, the Colorado Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network helped respond to a Salmonella contamination incident in the city of Alamosa. Water utilities from around the state provided crews and equipment to help plan a response to the outbreak, and then flush, disinfect and sample 49 miles of the Alamosa water distribution system.

For larger emergencies, federal agencies often provide assistance when local and state resources are exhausted. EPA’s water emergency response program has developed tools, resources and training opportunities to prepare water utilities to respond to and recover from disasters, and to help utilities practice navigating this process.

One resource that helps utilities plan for and practice their responses to emergencies is a tabletop exercise tool that EPA developed. The tool contains 15 scenarios that address an “all-hazards” approach to emergency preparedness and response as well as introduces users to the potential impacts of climate change on the water utility sector. Each scenario has a customizable situation manual, discussion questions and PowerPoint presentation. Utilities can modify these materials, allowing them to conduct a tabletop exercise to meet their needs.

And, since finding the resources needed to recover from disasters is critical, we provide information about where to find federal funding that supports disaster recovery. In all these efforts, EPA works closely with our partners and stakeholders in local communities, states and other federal agencies.

About the author: Rich Weisman has worked at EPA since 2006 and currently serves as Team Leader for the Water Emergency Response Team in the Water Security Division of EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. He can be reached at weisman.richard@epa.gov.

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