Today, as the impacts of climate change are felt more keenly than ever before in America’s cities and towns, disaster recovery is a far more complex activity, one that requires expertise and team work. As fire season lengthens, as major hurricanes hit multiple times in a few short months, and as tornadoes and ice storms intensify, hard-hit localities need help from public and private sector partners – particularly when it comes to technology and infrastructure – not just to get back on their feet, but to build back better.
This was the situation that Henry Guinn, Mayor of Jennings, Louisiana found himself in last year as two hurricanes made landfall on either side of the city just weeks apart. “There were four major hurricanes that hit Louisiana in 2020. But for the town of Jennings it was Hurricane Laura in August of 2020 and Hurricane Delta just a few weeks later in October that had direct impacts on the town,” explained Mayor Guinn. “They were both Category 4 storms, but completely different weather events with Laura bringing 100 mile per hour winds and Delta stalling over the town and dumping 14 inches of rain in a very short period of time, which resulted in massive flooding.”
As you would expect, the town’s communications, IT, and other public utilities infrastructure was hard hit by the twin forces of wind and rain. “Many Live Oaks were uprooted by the wind and then those that survived the wind toppled over as the ground became saturated and the soil structure weakened,” said Mayor Guinn. “As you might expect, the trees did a significant amount of damage to not only the gas lines they uprooted, but also to above ground and underground cables that run power, phone lines, and Internet cables. And of course, cell phone towers were also damaged by the strong winds and unrelenting rain.”
Despite the seriousness of the infrastructure damage experienced in Jennings, the town was able to restore essential services in a matter of hours, when conceivably it could have taken weeks. “What made the difference for Jennings was our partnership with Verizon,” shared Mayor Guinn. “They responded immediately to our request for assistance and deployed a Verizon Response Team to Jennings to aid in rebuilding the town’s communications infrastructure.”
Verizon developed the response team model a little over two years ago based on how the organization responds to emergencies internally. “We had built this multi-channel volunteer force where employees would assist each other following a disaster,” explained Trent Griggs, Verizon Response Manager for the South East Region. “We developed highly effective and successful project management plans to get our colleagues in affected areas back up and running in a timely manner so they could then help their communities recover.”
Using this as a blueprint, Verizon built 21 regional teams to provide that same mutual aid model to the communities the organization serves. “While every situation is unique because our planning starts with building relationships with local governments long before disaster strikes, we build relationships based on respect,” explained Griggs. “We start by understanding the possible scenarios the locality might face and an understanding of each other’s capabilities so that we can step in with the right tools and solutions at the right time. We want to enhance safety and make a significant contribution to the community’s recovery and rebuilding efforts and never hamper the locality or become the mission.”
To this end, much of the work that Griggs and the Verizon Response Team performed in Jennings following the twin hurricanes in 2020 was focused on restoring both phone and Internet quickly. “Obviously first responders can do their jobs much more quickly if they have reliable communications,” Griggs observed. “With the town’s citizens relying on the Internet to be able to register for federal assistance, it was important that we focused our efforts there.”
After every disaster response effort the Verizon team learns more about how to work effectively with local communities to support their recovery efforts. From refining procedures to incorporating additional tools, such as drones that can be used to assess damage and prioritize repairs, an After Action Report is shared both within the Verizon Response Team and also with government partners. “With each iteration there’s an opportunity to learn and to build relationships with the communities we serve so that we’re not just solving problems on the ground, but also being mission-forward,” Griggs concluded.
With wildfires no longer happening just in the west, or tornados only striking Tornado Alley, or Category 4 and 5 hurricanes only happening once in a lifetime, the ability to recover quickly from these disasters has never been more important. By working in partnership with private sector partners local governments increase their capacity and capability to respond to these events and build resilient and vibrant communities.
Photograph taken by Trent Griggs