Coastal Services Center

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration



Responding to Tropical Storm Irene Part of the Job for Coastal Managers in Massachusetts


“The threat is greater than ever before, and a direct hit from a major hurricane is likely to put thousands of people at risk and cause many millions in damage.”
Joe Pelczarski,
Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management

No longer a hurricane but still packing a punch, Tropical Storm Irene struck Massachusetts on August 28 after roaring up the Eastern Seaboard. While many areas were hit much harder by the storm, coastal resource managers were a part of the state’s emergency management response efforts—a role they’ve been fulfilling since 1978.

“We as coastal managers recognize that the information collected during a storm event is also very valuable for longer-term planning and hazard mitigation efforts,” says Julia Knisel, coastal shoreline and floodplain manager for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management. “It’s not a reach to have coastal managers involved in this effort.”

In addition to manning the Emergency Operations Center, or “bunker,” during hazardous events—which can include hurricanes, blizzards, terrorist threats, and inland flooding—the coastal program has also worked to develop a Web tool that enables trained state and local officials, as well as citizens, to document near-real-time coastal storm damages.

Damage reports generated by the StormReporter Web tool are provided to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, NOAA National Weather Service, and other agencies to inform decisions about deploying state and federal resources and issuing National Weather Service storm advisories.

The coastal program’s involvement in emergency response is important “given all the coastal development that has occurred in Massachusetts in recent decades,” says Joe Pelczarski, Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management regional planner. “The threat is greater than ever before, and a direct hit from a major hurricane is likely to put thousands of people at risk and cause many millions in damage.”

Assessing Irene

While Tropical Storm Irene brought the worst flooding in centuries to upstate New York and Vermont, in Massachusetts the storm dumped torrential rains and sent streams over their banks, eroded portions of the shoreline with pounding waves, destroyed a road, and topped trees and power lines, but caused no serious coastal damage.

“We’re fortunate that Irene had weakened some before it got to Massachusetts,” says Pelczarski.

At the request of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the coastal program activated the Rapid Response Coastal Storm Damage Assessment Team (storm team) to assess coastal damage from the storm.

Thirty-five members of the volunteer storm team mobilized at first light on August 29 to assess the level of damage to natural resources, harbors, infrastructure, and structures along the coastline and share their findings using the StormReporter Web tool.

Standardization

The coastal program partnered with the National Weather Service and the national StormSmart Coasts Network to develop StormReporter in 2009 in order to standardize data collection and assist the storm team in reporting damages.

Pelczarski, who serves as the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ representative in the state emergency “bunker,” received 204 electronic reports following Irene regarding damage observations at specific locations.

A recently updated version of StormReporter enables trained users to document near-real-time coastal storm damages.

Emergency Responsibilities

The coastal program has helped staff the state’s Emergency Operations Center, which is in a civil defense-built bunker, since a record blizzard hit the state in February 1978, Pelczarski says.

Shortly afterwards, the governor wrote an executive order establishing emergency responsibilities within the state—and included the recently designated coastal program, now housed in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

During emergency events, Pelczarski coordinates the office’s communications and response activities within the bunker.

Evolution

The storm team came into being in the aftermath of a major hurricane and two nor’easters that struck the state in 1991 and 1992. These storms included Hurricane Bob in 1991, a category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale that caused nearly $40 million in damage in the state, and the famous “Perfect Storm” of October 30, 1991, which sank the swordfish boat Andrea Gail that was later depicted in a best-selling novel and movie.

Using telephones and flip charts, volunteer storm team members began providing preliminary damage assessments, which enabled the state to better focus its resources during response and recovery, Pelczarski says.

Evolving from using phones to emailed reports to the revamped Web-based StormReporter, the storm team can now use smartphones and other handheld electronic devices to almost instantly submit detailed coastal storm damage reports and photographs.

Expanding Range

With support from the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems, StormReporter has been expanded so that it can be used to record coastal storm damage observations across New England.

StormReporter is supported by an easy-to-use social networking-type interface, similar to Facebook, Knisel says. Users create a profile on the national StormSmart Coasts website to access the tool, and can quickly check boxes related to the storm damage they are documenting and upload photos.

Knisel says the storm team and other users will receive detailed training to ensure they are comfortable using the new version of the tool. Local beach teams and citizens interested in reporting coastal storm damages in their communities will now be able to use the tool, which will improve data collected about minor to moderate weather events.

“Once we develop a longer-term archive of data, we’ll really be able to start analyzing it and drawing some trends regarding those areas that are most susceptible to damage,” Knisel says. “We’ll be able to use the data to support local decisions regarding permitting and planning.”

She adds, “This definitely could be expanded across the country. The only thing that would need to be modified is the types of observations on the form. Other states might need to really tailor it to their oceanfront shoreline.”

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To view StormReporter, go to http://stormreporter.stormsmart.org, register for a new account if you have not already connected with the StormSmart Coasts Network, and join the StormReporter group for your state. For more information on the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management’s role in state emergency management operations, contact Joe Pelczarski at (617) 626-1234 or joe.pelczarski@state.ma.us. Questions about StormReporter should be directed to Julia Knisel at (617) 626-1191 or julia.knisel@state.ma.us.


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