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Ref: Pennsylvania Governor says response to winter storm was beleaguered by ill-preparation

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Feb. 21, 2007


HARRISBURG — The inadequate response to last week’s statewide winter storm began with poor planning and execution by PennDOT in some key counties, but was further hampered by breakdowns in the Commonwealth’s emergency response operations, according to a preliminary review announced today by Governor Edward G. Rendell’s senior staff.

Gregory C. Fajt, senior advisor to the Governor, and Joseph S. Martz, Secretary of Administration, noted that while the storm was an unusual, complex mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain, coupled with rapidly dropping temperatures and high winds, the Commonwealth should have been better prepared.

The Administration launched an investigation into what factors led to the breakdown in this particular event and how it differed from the 11 previous weather related emergencies that the Commonwealth has managed since 2003. One of those events was the June, 2006 floods, where the Pennsylvania National Guard performed over 1,000 rescues, including 13 by helicopter.

“Managing the storm would have been difficult even if all state agencies performed at peak efficiency, but in this case they did not,” Fajt said. “We didn’t execute well in the storm’s early stages, and didn’t escalate our response when we fell behind in some key areas. The result, as Governor Rendell said last week, was ‘an inadequate and unacceptable response’ that left motorists stranded for hours on I-78 and forced lengthy closures of three interstate highways to allow PennDOT to remove accumulated ice and snow.”

Martz said the three key agencies involved in dealing with the storm have each identified problems in their response.

“Although PennDOT managed the challenging storm in most of the state, breakdowns in several key counties created serious problems that mushroomed due to poor communications at all levels of state government,” Martz said.

PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler said his agency’s problems began with inadequate planning and internal communication in several key counties in the central region of the state.

“We simply didn’t plan well before the storm or execute well after the storm began in Berks, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties,” Biehler said. “Once we fell behind, a series of accidents frustrated our efforts to clear the roadways. In the end we simply couldn’t remove the accumulated ice and snow without closing the interstates.”

Martz noted the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) did not fully activate the Emergency Operations Center until Wednesday evening. When activated, the Emergency Operations Center is staffed by personnel from all state agencies responding to an emergency situation, and provides a single point of contact for emergency personnel in the field.

“The delay in activating the Emergency Operations Center hampered efforts to mount a coordinated response,” Martz said. “The Pennsylvania State Police, who were in the best position to assess the problems on the roads, did not effectively and quickly communicate those problems to the highest levels of state government.”

PEMA Director James R. Joseph said the Commonwealth’s Emergency Operations Center was not fully activated until 7:50 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 14. The storm began on Tuesday morning.

“In the June flood and September hurricane threat, I followed my instincts and immediately went to a full activation of the Emergency Operations Center, and last week I did not,” Joseph said. “In retrospect, I should have done the same for this storm, which would have helped all agencies quickly direct resources to areas with the greatest need. The end result was a delayed response to what became a major emergency.”

State Police Commissioner Colonel Jeffrey B. Miller said state troopers were responsible for clearing traffic and opening the interstate highways, and were in the best position to assess and report the growing problems on portions of those roadways. He said while they worked very hard to complete that mission, in hindsight perhaps they should have escalated the deteriorating conditions on specific sections to higher levels, and when necessary, request additional help in addressing the problems.

“State troopers take great pride in being on the front lines of any emergency situation, and serving citizens on our highways to the best of our ability,” Miller said. “We knew how bad things were on the Interstates, and agree with the Governor that the Commonwealth’s response was unacceptable.”

Fajt and Martz said James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is conducting a detailed review of Pennsylvania’s response to last week’s storm, and of the Commonwealth’s planning and policies to deal with severe weather events. Director Witt and his staff have begun their work in Harrisburg and expect to present their preliminary findings and recommendations in two to three weeks.

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