Study: Natural disaster could leave 80,000 without shelter in HR

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) – Jimmy Capps has seen a few storms blow through the Oceanfront in 35 years, but never the big one.

“We’ll just batten down the hatches and address that when it comes,” said Capps. He said it has been several years since a storm damaged the Breakers Resort Inn.

We have had some of the side of the building blow off one time, a little bit of the panels of the sign blew out,” said Capps. 

Early in his term, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced there’s work to do when it comes to disaster planning.

“I have just reviewed the JLARC study on disaster preparedness planning in the Commonwealth and recognize that while we do have a great plan, there are some discrepancies and a lack of coordination,” McAuliffe said in his first address to the General Assembly.

A study from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission paints a bleak picture about what might happen in Hampton Roads during a hurricane that is ranked category three or higher. JLARC project leader Jamie Bitz talked to 10 On Your Side about the key findings.

“Approximately 80,000 people may be without shelter at least temporarily because you do have these shelter deficits. I think a lot of the deficiencies that we found trace back to that lack of coordination,” said Bitz.

The study revealed only six of 16 state shelters would have enough staff to open at the same time in a major storm. Chesapeake deputy coordinator for emergency management, Robb Braidwood, said he has more than 200,000 people to worry about in his city.

“We have a lot of shelters we could use after an event, but we have a very limited number of shelters we could use pre-event. Many cities are like this because of our low-lying nature in Tidewater,” said Braidwood.

Braidwood said Chesapeake has been meeting on evacuation and sheltering issues for nearly 15 years.

“The impacts to our area from a category three storm will be immense, and I don’t want to say that we’re not prepared, but at the same time, I don’t want to create some sort of false sense of security for our citizens. It will be a very, very difficult situation,” said Braidwood.

Hurricane Katrina showed the struggle inside New Orleans’ Superdome when it was no longer safe to leave. In a major hurricane, Hampton Roads shelters could become the refuge of last resort. The JLARC report shows many cities haven’t said where those would be, and only three have signed agreements with places outside Hampton Roads to shelter their residents. Jim Redick, Norfolk’s director of emergency preparedness and response, said Norfolk was one of those cities.

“We have an agreement with Richmond. It needs to be revised and updated, but yes we have that relationship,” said Redick. “I think more of the hazard is the complacency. I think people haven’t seen a storm of that significance in our lifetime. It always happens somewhere else. I believe we’re prepared. We’re certainly more prepared than we were in the past, but there’s always something else that we can do to continue improving.” 

Brett Burdick, acting state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said the state and cities share a responsibility for shelter.

“Right now we’re at a bit of a stoppage because all of the state-owned universities that have the capability, we’ve exhausted that. There’s a way to go to local governments outside of the area, but most of them don’t have really large facilities that are owned by them,” said Burdick.

The study shows the state was only aware of two local cities with traffic management plans for evacuation. Mark Marchbank, deputy coordinator for emergency management, said Virginia Beach did not have a local plan, but follows the plan for the state.

“I think Virginia Beach has a very robust traffic control system. We have an intelligent traffic system. In terms of evacuation, our plans are to fold in with the state of Virginia,” explained Marchbank.

“I think that it is true that there was no state oversight of that process. It’s always been a local government function as to how they’re going to get folks from the surface streets on to the primaries and on to the interstates,” Burdick said.

Images from recent storms across the country have moved things forward here, but Burdick admitted Virginia is behind the curve.

“We need to pick up the ball and run with it a little quicker. I don’t think it was dropped. I think it was perhaps not realized how things were developing and the infrastructure constraints, the number of people and so-forth,” said Burdick.

Most of the people who talked to 10 On Your Side said they were already working on many issues highlighted in the study and they were supportive of a bill making its way through the General Assembly. It would reorganize disaster planning under one office, with the Secretary of Public Safety. Governor McAuliffe said he supports centralizing all homeland security and disaster preparedness functions in that office and wants the General Assembly to implement the recommendations of the report.

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