On August 9, 2023

‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities

‘There will be a next time’: Ludlow emergency management director gears up for future calamities

By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger

Sometime in the afternoon of July 9, Angela Kissell and her husband began knocking on doors in this southern Vermont town, telling residents to prepare for a possible evacuation. She’d been following forecasts of a storm that could bring as much as 5 inches of rain to Ludlow in the next two days, and the possibility of flash floods.

About 12 hours later, at 4:30 a.m. on July 10, Kissell joined other members of the Ludlow Fire Department in evacuating people from a manufactured home park as the Black River engulfed it.

And then, Kissell — who’d been Ludlow’s emergency management director for just two months — asked the municipal government to activate the Ludlow Community Center as an evacuation center.

Within the next 36 hours, dozens of people fled to local emergency shelters as Ludlow was pummeled by the statewide storm, momentarily becoming the storm’s epicenter. Some parts of Ludlow got nearly 8 inches of rain, which caused a massive mudslide downtown, spawned millions of dollars’ worth of damage to homes, businesses, roads, bridges and a state park, and temporarily cut off land access to and from the center of town.

 Kissell, 48, said the experience underscored to her the need to come up with a more comprehensive plan for future emergencies in the town of 2,170 residents. “We learned so much,” she said, “that it’s just going to make us that much better for the next ones.”

Though she has been a firefighter in Ludlow since 2017, Kissell only became emergency management director on May 1. During that first day of the flooding, the learning curve was steep.

Stepping up preparations

Before moving to Ludlow with her husband in 2016, Kissell had built a career in mortgage and lending in New Hampshire. She joined the Ludlow Fire Department — where her husband was a firefighter — after seeing the need for more volunteers in a town with an aging population and with majority part-time residents. Only 10% of Ludlow homeowners lived there permanently.

At a Ludlow Selectboard meeting April 3, when Kissell formally expressed interest in becoming the town’s emergency management director, she pointed out that the local emergency operations team had not met in at least four years.

She also said the town had not addressed some emergency issues, such as opening a shelter during a storm last winter, and it needed an emergency director who would step up. She asked if Ludlow was prepared for an emergency.

The town’s longtime emergency management director, Ron Bixby, resigned on May 1. Kissell was appointed to the volunteer position on the same day.

In June, members of the town’s emergency operations team met to discuss their priorities, Kissell said. The following month, the flash floods came.

Kissell said she didn’t immediately have answers to several pressing questions as the natural disaster unfolded: What kind of support did local emergency responders need? How could they search homes cut off by the flooding? How can town workers immediately assess road conditions?

“We had no policies or procedures in place … I had nothing to go by,” she said. “I felt like I was a little dependent on all these other people who’ve been in their roles much longer than I have.” But it was Kissell who was leading the town’s emergency operations team, which includes the fire and police chiefs, town manager and head dispatcher. 

Kissell said the local emergency management plan consisted mainly of lists, such as emergency contact personnel, shelter locations and town equipment. 

Ludlow’s emergency operations team is currently assessing its next steps. The municipal manager, Brendan McNamara, said members will be holding more debriefings on the flood response and reaction. 

“The plan will be tailored to what becomes of those meetings,” said McNamara, who was appointed to his position in April.

 State Rep. Logan Nicoll, D-Ludlow, said he was satisfied with the town’s emergency response to the flooding. “I thought everything went as well as it could have,” he said. “It was a difficult situation.”

‘Two flood-zone towns’

Kissell balances her emergency management role in Ludlow with her day job as town clerk in neighboring Plymouth, where she also serves as a firefighter. She missed two office days because of her flooding response work.

“When I came back up here, I felt really overwhelmed,” Kissell said outside the Plymouth Town Office this week. “I feel like I’m in two flood-zone towns.”

A portion of Plymouth, which is located about 10 miles north of Ludlow, was battered by 9 inches of rain during the July storm, according to data from the National Weather Service. Several homes were damaged and some culverts were washed out, but Kissell said local roads and bridges took the hardest hit: $3.36 million worth of necessary repairs.

In the flooding aftermath, she said, Plymouth residents have been calling her office to ask which damaged roads have been reopened and where to get test kits to check their well water. Others, with tax season upon them, inquired about their property tax bills.

But being the emergency management director in Ludlow has helped her gain knowledge that has come in handy at the clerk’s office. For instance, in Ludlow, she developed a list of emergency contacts and resources — with the state government, Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency — that she shared in Plymouth.

Kissell said she sees a lot of work ahead as Ludlow’s emergency management director, but the July flooding gave her a crash course. She plans to write a step-by-step evacuation plan, gather supplies for emergency shelters in advance and prepare resources to guide residents in the post-calamity recovery.

“We’ll be better next time,” she said, “because there will be a next time.”

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