If storms come …

Just days ago, weather predictions called for severe storms, including a derecho to rival the storm that blew through the area nearly a year ago, leaving local residents with no power or gas and little cell phone coverage during a heat wave.

Last week’s storm threat didn’t lead to much damage in the Mid-Ohio Valley but it did raise the question: If another massive storm were to strike, is the area more prepared?

The storm that ripped through the valley June 29 was an eye opener for many area agencies and residents, who said they felt there wasn’t enough communication with the public or adequate emergency plans in place.

In fact, much work been done since last summer and many more preparedness measures are still in the works, local officials said this week.

“I think we learned some lessons from it about who to call and when to call,” said Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz.

After the storm, Lorentz noted that communication channels were basically non-existent.

“It just seemed like we didn’t have a lot of response from anybody outside of the city other than the (Washington County) Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

In the same vein, the city had trouble communicating facts about the situation to its citizens. For example, despite making announcements through WTAP-TV and Clear Channel radio stations that the city water supply was fine, Lorentz still heard rumors that Belpre was about to run out of water.

“I don’t know how to better do that, to get the word out,” he said.

Washington County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Lauer has an idea.

“One thing that never occurred to me that came to my attention during the last storm is that a lot of people use Facebook,” Lauer said Monday.

Lauer did not make use of Facebook during that storm, but next time plans to use the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page as a means of distributing information. The page has more than 3,700 likes-which essentially means that many people receive updates there.

As far as media outlets were concerned, some did not have power to get the word out. WMOA-AM 1490 has bought a generator since the storm, said Lauer, and they are a source people could use for news in the event of another bad storm. The Marietta Times also now has access to a generator in the case of an emergency.

On the other end, many people did not have the power to access radio and television and carriers without gasoline meant newspapers were not immediately getting information out after last June’s storm.

However, many people had cell phones that were charged thanks to car chargers and some of those people were able to access the Internet, noted Lauer.

Even cell phone service was spotty, though.

Much of that was likely because of the vast quantity of people trying to use the network at once, said Holly Hollingsworth, senior public relations consultant with AT&T Ohio.

AT&T has consistently been enhancing networks in Ohio to enhance coverage and capacity, which should help with similar situations in the future, she said.

“While our continued investment in our networks does add coverage and capacity among other things, we have also provided information that can help our customers in these situations,” said Hollingsworth.

For example, texting is more reliable than calling because it uses less system resources, she said.

People with questions during an emergency event can also contact Lauer directly at 373-5613.

“We’re not going to get all the people, but we can start spreading some information there about where people can get ice and where cooling stations are,” he said.

Without power, ice became an important factor in keeping people’s groceries from spoiling, recalled Stanleyville resident Patty Venham.

“For the first day, we had to go clear to McConnelsville to get gas and ice,” said Venham, 51.

Working at Walmart at the time, Venham recalled that the store was selling out of ice as fast as it could get it in.

She and her family were without power in Stanleyville for about a week.

They borrowed a generator from their son-in-law and fared well, she said. And when another large storm threatened to roll in on Wednesday night, Venham and her family did not do anything special.

“I live in the country. We already have gas. We’re pretty good about gassing up,” she said.

Gassing up after the big storm became especially problematic. Many area gas stations had no power and were not able to operate. At stations with generators, huge lines sprung up and some stations ran out of fuel to sell.

“We were breaking up some heated arguments at gas pumps,” said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.

Running out of gas was also a threat for the city, which does not keep its own auxiliary gas supply like the sheriff’s office does.

The city is now going through the steps necessary to get their own auxiliary gas supply set up in case of another such shortage, Waite said.

Byers Reno Mini Mart and Byers Newport Mini Mart were able to run on generators during the storm, and for the most part, were able to keep a supply of gas on hand, said Peggy Byers, who co-owns the gas stations with husband, Bob.

“We had lapses of four or five hours where we were waiting on another truck (of gas). But we were mostly able to keep some on hand,” she said.

Now the Byers have had conversations with distributers to make sure they are ready if another storm arises. At the same time, they have put work into a bigger capacity generator.

The biggest issue at the Byers’ stores was the magnitude of people.

“It was hard to handle the volume,” she said.

Byers noticed that rush again Wednesday. The storm warnings that day caused customers to buy triple the volume of gasoline they would have typically bought that day, she said.

“It’s probably not a bad idea to keep some gas on hand, especially since we’ve been having similar atmospheric conditions as before that big storm lately,” she said.

The city of Belpre was part of the contingency gassing up Wednesday in anticipation of the storm. Lorentz said he was glad to drive by and see all the city trucks fueling up. It is part of the emergency preparedness procedures he has put into place, he said.

“Now when we get those kind of storm reports, we start making sure we’re ready,” he said.

Thursday they did preventative maintenance on the city’s generators to make sure they were all running well.

Marietta’s Water Department lost power for just more than a day after the storm. The one small generator at the plant is enough to run some basic gages but not enough to treat the water and certainly not enough to keep the well field and booster stations running, said Marietta City Water Superintendent Jeff Kephart.

“Three of our outlying tanks went empty at that time. That was the first time I’d ever seen that happen in my 25 years,” he said.

After the storm, he had an engineering company come in and do an assessment of what sort of generator power would be needed to prevent that from ever happening again.

The estimated $354,000 project has been given to the Marietta City Engineer’s Office and will go forward after the project is bid out, said Kephart.

The lack of power was one of the biggest issues following the storm and the city water department was not the only one to find that out the hard way.

“We lost all of our meat cause the power was out so long, probably about $600 to$700 worth,” said Keith Oliver, 58, of Lowell.

Oliver, who lived in Stanleyville during last year’s big storm, is going to make sure that does not happen again.

“I’m prepared this time. I went out and got me a generator,” he said.

Marietta business Davis, Pickering & Co., Inc. was busy installing a new generator at the Washington County Courthouse Monday. A fire broke out in the courthouse’s old generator the same day as the derecho last summer, and caused a world of headache for Lauer and county officials.

The brand new exterior generator at the courthouse cost $94,105 including installation. Soon the county will also have a new generator installed at the Washington County Emergency Operations Center, which is nearing completion on Davis Avenue in Marietta, said Lauer.

“The generator and transfer switch is not due in until like July 10,” Lauer said.

Initially the $237,500 Emergency Management Performance Grant was contingent on the EOC being completed before July. However, the county has asked for an extension for the generator to be delivered and are confident it will be granted, Lauer said.

Once operational, the EOC will serve as a headquarters with a dedicated server, power supply and phone lines where emergency agencies, law enforcement, local officials and more can stay up to date during emergency situations and act accordingly, said Lauer.

If a storm hits before the EOC is operational, improvements to the current emergency base on the second floor of the sheriff’s office will make things go smoother, he added.

“We’ve corrected a lot of those issues that gave us problems last time,” he said.

Those improvements have included putting in additional phone lines.

Perhaps the best thing a person can keep in mind if faced with another similar storm is to keep a good attitude, say some local residents.

That is what Breanna Kendall, 25, of Marietta, and her family did last June when they went without power in downtown Marietta for three and a half days.

“We kind of just made the best of the situation. My fiance and I would take the kids down to a friend’s house every day to play in the pool. That’s really all you can do is make the best of it,” said Kendall, who was pregnant during the hot powerless days last June.