Shelter Or Evacuate: When A Major Hurricane Comes, Options Are Limited

Sarah Tan
Russ Hartenstine, emergency preparedness manager for West Tisbury, opens a Meal Ready to Eat.

In West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, the town has over 1,000 Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, stored in the town hall basement. They were purchased a decade ago through a grant from FEMA. One particularly hot summer day, I visited West Tisbury Emergency Preparedness director Russ Hartenstine, to test them to see if they were still good.

"Say we have a very large hurricane or a blizzard, where 70 percent of the island is without power and supplemental water," Hartenstine said. "We're going to need to supply people with food immediately so they can be secure."

The MREs come in flat cardboard cases with a heating pad activated by just a small amount of water. The heating pad is then wrapped around the packages of food to cook them. Supposedly, the MREs never expire. They come in a variety of options that sound like an Italian restaurant menu, including chicken with cavatelli, spaghetti with meat sauce, and beef ravioli.

The island has never had to use their emergency meals, and it hasn’t been hit by a storm hard enough in recent memory to actually use an evacuation or sheltering plan. Gary Robinson, the Vineyard's emergency planning chair, says there are unique challenges to preparing for an event on the island.

"Probably Martha's Vineyard is one of the more difficult places in the whole country to develop an evacuation plan, because you have the winter plan and the summer plan — 20,000 people, and 120,000 people," Robinson said. "Four or five weeks out of the year, from now until Labor Day, we're in rough shape."

He said that even if Vineyard residents and visitors are able to get off the island, they’ll still have to contend with the rest of the Cape before they can reach safety. Traffic, particularly over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, will be a major choke point, especially during the summer, which coincides with hurricane season. Phil Burt manages emergency preparedness for Barnstable County.

"On any given day, the traffic on the Cape in the summertime is pretty intense," Burt said. At mid-morning on a regular summer Thursday, he noted that traffic was already backed up on both ends of the Bourne bridge.

As a result, in the event of a storm that's advancing towards the Cape, the regional evacuation and sheltering plan would be to begin evacuations from homes in flood zones early, and to urge anyone else who is not in a flood zone to shelter in place.

"The evacuation is really for homes and businesses, those areas that are going to be inundated by storm surge," he said.

And for those who may get trapped in traffic, if weather conditions turn bad enough, traffic could be re-routed to a shelter at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne. Burt said because of the Cape’s geography, the county's regional evacuation and shelter plan is to have people to stay where they are if possible.

"We are technically an island, so in the event that we have major storms, we could be cut off," he said. "We always like to say from an emergency management perspective, we like to prepare to be on our own here for 72 hours."

Back on the Vineyard, emergency management chairperson Gary Robinson said that self-sufficiency will be the key to surviving a disaster on the Cape. He added that he isn't worried about the scenario of a hurricane just hitting the Vineyard, because if that happened, help could come in enough time.

"But a hurricane is not going to stop at Martha's Vineyard," Robinson said. "It's not going to hit us and not hit Falmouth or Boston. And if that comes, you're probably dealing with a population of several million. We're going to be way down the supply chain. So, I think, if we teach people how to shelter in place and how to take care of themselves and their neighbors, they're going to be a lot better off for this island here."

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