Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Robert Fenton, regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency Region IX, signed Thursday last week the final draft of the first-ever joint CNMI/FEMA catastrophic typhoon plan, which was created following the devastation of the islands by Typhoon Soudelor in 2015.
FEMA Region IX planner Janet Yucum and CNMI Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency chief planner/grants manager Brien Sers Nicholas Jr. made a presentation about the final plan.
The plan’s objectives are to provide emergency power to maintain continuity of essential operations and restore the power infrastructure; stabilize the water distribution and wastewater systems; deliver fuel to maintain continuity of essential operations and services; conduct mass care services and sheltering of survivors; distribute essential commodities and immediate response resources; facilitate recovery of the marine transportation system; and reestablish public health and medical services at critical emergency medical facilities.
Torres said the catastrophic typhoon plan is a living document and changes will be made along the way.
“But this is definitely the right approach moving forward,” Torres said, adding that disaster is inevitable and that is it just a matter of when it will hit the CNMI.
He said he was the acting governor when Typhoon Soudelor devastated the islands, and his first main concern was the safety of the community and whether there were casualties.
With this plan, Torres said, it is just a matter of government agencies, the private sector, the community, non-government organizations, FEMA, and neighboring islands coming together, putting the working documents together for the CNMI to move forward and have a standard, documentation for guidelines.
As to why there was no catastrophic typhoon plan before Soudelor, Torres said perhaps because the CNMI never had such an experience before.
“It is an opportunity for us to go back and collaborate on all the experiences we’ve had,” he said.
The governor said they have been educating the community on preparedness, but at the same time they are working also on what to prepare.
Torres pointed out that FEMA left behind about 13 generators and that they have already identified which water well they will be used to pump and provide water.
When the next strong typhoon hits, the CNMI already has generators for the wells to provide water.
“We are here with federal partners to alleviate the hardships,” he said.
In his speech, Torres recalled that Typhoon Soudelor was the worst typhoon he ever experienced. Torres said he was the acting governor at that time and it took him three hours, instead of the normal 20 minutes, to go from his house in Koblerville to the CNMI Emergency Operations Center on Capital Hill because of the devastation.
“I didn’t know if there’s a plan. I didn’t know what we have,” he said, adding that his priority then was to make sure the roads are clear in case of emergencies.
Torres disclosed that they are looking at establishing new rules and regulations for public lands.
“Any public land should have access to water supply in case of disaster,” he said.
Torres cited, among other things, that many of the islands’ power poles are now concrete.
“We have gone a long way from where we were in 2015, but we still have a long way ahead of us,” the governor added.
The FEMA regional administrator, Fenton, said the catastrophic typhoon plan took two years to make. The process started out with the FEMA leadership coming to the CNMI in June 2016 to analyze the recovery efforts from Soudelor and to talk about the lessons learned.
He said they looked at areas where they needed to better plan for and have contingency plans for the CNMI.
“And from that, we established multiple work groups…and…plans on how we respond to that event,” he said.
Fenton said that, as things change, the infrastructure will change and so will the plan. “Over time we continue to take necessary steps.”
Fenton said power poles have been replaced with concrete poles and that FEMA left the generators here to pump up water wells in case of another disaster.
“It’s an example on how we use federal resources in partnership with the Commonwealth and others to make a more resilient community,” he said.
Fenton said the CNMI’s recovery from Soudelor is a great model across the country. He shared the CNMI lessons with the national emergency managers association this past fall.
When he goes around the country or talk in Washington, D.C., Fenton would use as an example what FEMA and the CNMI did to rebuild the infrastructure here.
As FEMA is so far from the CNMI and Guam, Fenton said they are trying to streamline their program to make it easier for their costumers and stakeholders.
“It’s a big step to have a plan,” he said, emphasizing that a plan is only the starting point. “We need to go ahead and continue to educate people about that plan.”
HSEM special assistant Gerald J. Guerrero said the catastrophic typhoon plan will guide the Commonwealth though future natural disasters.
Guerrero said it was nearly two years ago when they gathered, both officials from the state and federal governments, to begin drafting the plan.
Guerrero said it was Typhoon Soudelor’s devastation of the islands that brought the CNMI and FEMA together to re-examine, re-assess and strengthen their disaster preparedness and recovery plan.
“Through the collaboration of both governments, we identified and addressed the critical areas that required attention, which are all reflected in the plan’s final draft,” he said.