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The Christmas Storm Redux: 6 Lessons in Emergency Management

The Christmas Storm Redux: 6 Lessons in Emergency Management

With winter soon upon us, and the Thanksgiving holiday seemingly a favorite target for Mother Nature, I thought now would be a good time to recap some of the emergency management lessons I’ve learned over the years, particularly from my experience responding to a severe localized winter storm here in western Washington early in my city management career.

A little background on that storm: between December 23 and 26, 1983 (an el Nino year, by the way) extreme low atmospheric pressure approaching western Washington from the Pacific met extreme high pressure east of the Cascade Range. This caused high velocity winds to flow from east to west through the mountain passes; near my city of Enumclaw, wind gusts exceeded 100 mph! At the same time, the temperature was near zero degrees Fahrenheit. The community lost electrical power and sustained severe property damage. At the time the city did not have a formal emergency response plan in place.

Here are the top takeaways I learned from going through that experience:

  • Plan ahead. Since then I don’t take storm warnings lightly. Although an earthquake seems to be the most likely disaster threat from a regional perspective, you should have an emergency plan in place and adaptable to any contingency.

  • Be prepared to do without outside help. If it’s a regional event, resources will be spread thin. Or, as we experienced, the localized nature of the event meant regional agencies were unaware (or disbelieving) and unprepared themselves. For years we’ve been told to be prepared as individuals for up to three days without help. More recent public service announcements recommend having seven to ten days worth of supplies on hand. That sounds more realistic based on what we see in the news.

  • Expect the unexpected. In our December 1983 incident no one expected the combination of events, single-digit temperatures, and 100+ mph winds. When the National Guard did arrive with generators they couldn’t be hooked up and they couldn’t run; their diesel fuel was the consistency of jelly due to the cold.

  • Have your incident command structure tied down. When the governor’s office called to ask if we’d declared an emergency, the mayor was unavailable. I took the initiative to respond but it should have been the mayor. I think we did a fairly good job of keeping track of the various city response efforts but it was ad hoc rather than planned.

  • Consider your family. To work effectively, you and your staff need to be assured that your families are secure. Make sure to have a plan in place for them too.

  • Do Regular Emergency Training. Since that incident, I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Integrated Emergency Management Course at the FEMA training center in Emmitsburg, Maryland at the city where I later worked. In preparation for that, I, along with the rest of the management team, spent nearly a year training locally. It gave me the opportunity to go over the lessons learned during the Christmas Storm and to reflect on what we did, both right and wrong. Since then, the entire management team of that city has turned over, and yours will too. You have to review and renew your emergency planning on a constant basis for it to be effective when you need it.

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Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.