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Lessons learned: Three years after ice storm, City of Aiken shares how it’s better prepared to respond to disasters

February 5, 2017 GMT

Three years ago this month, a winter storm covered Aiken with a blanket of ice that was more than an inch thick.

The precipitation that fell and froze caused widespread power outages and downed numerous trees, which blocked roads and damaged houses.

It took months to get rid of the resulting debris, and many residents complained about delays they thought were unnecessary.

Under fire for his decisions about how to handle the devastating situation, then-City Manager Richard Pearce eventually resigned.

Since 2014, there hasn’t been a disaster in Aiken with such a huge impact. But Pearce’s replacement, John Klimm, believes the City is better prepared to cope with a similar catastrophe in the future and will be able to respond faster to any problems.

“If you look at the makeup of our management team now, probably half of its members weren’t here during the ice storm,” Klimm said. “It wasn’t really by design or plan, but the changes involve folks who have had to deal a lot with storms, inclement weather and emergency preparedness.”

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Klimm is a native of Massachusetts.

“I spent years filled with dealing with six to eight to 12 hurricanes, snowstorms and nor’easters annually,” he said.

In addition, Klimm continued, “our business vitality manager, John McMichael, had a major position with a national insurance company and for a period of time, his job was to fly around and assist communities right after they faced devastation. Our public works director, Michelle Jones, was with SCDOT (S.C. Department of Transportation). Our planning director, Ryan Bland, was in the Midwest for many years.”

In the weeks immediately following the 2014 ice storm, one of the biggest issues involved SCDOT and whether it and its contractors would clean up streets within Aiken’s city limits.

SCDOT’s Bobby Usry told the Aiken Standard that Pearce and his staff made it quite clear that they didn’t want SCDOT working in the city limits. Pearce, however, maintained that he never told anybody to stay out, but only stated that he didn’t want SCDOT there as a “preference” because “we wanted to have an opportunity to do what we always do.”

In the future, there won’t be any questions about SCDOT’s role after a catastrophic event in Aiken because of action taken before Klimm became city manager.

He said that Aiken’s City Council authorized an agreement with SCDOT in September 2014 to give SCDOT primary jurisdiction over debris cleanup on state-maintained roads during states of emergency.

State-maintained streets make up approximately two-thirds of the City of Aiken’s road miles, Klimm said.

In addition, the City has partnered with Aiken County on an intergovernmental agreement to participate in its storm cleanup contract.

The City also has a better system for utilizing the services offered by outside contractors.

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“Several years ago, the issue arose that we weren’t very efficient in accepting credit cards for payments to license ‘storm chaser’ contractors coming into town and getting them out on the streets,” Klimm said. “But now we have an efficient procedure, and it takes less than 15 minutes to receive a business license, which is based on estimated receipts while doing business in the City of Aiken.”

Another improvement involves the standardization in the way the City documents the information needed to receive reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Every department will use the same methodology “so we can be much more effective in making sure that we get reimbursed as many dollars as possible,” Klimm said. “It’s almost an automated process, and all the department heads have been trained.”

The City has purchased additional auxiliary equipment for trucks that will help spread the salt and sand mixture provided by SCDOT.

“That is a big improvement and will help things proceed efficiently,” Jones said.

Klimm also believes the City will be more effective in dealing with disasters because the Public Services and the Utilities and Engineering departments have been combined to form the Public Works Department, which Jones oversees.

“They are now under one boss, and that type of coordination allows for better use of personnel,” Klimm said. “The on-call Public Works staff will be readily available to report to work when severe weather is imminent.”

The City has acquired additional generators to keep traffic signals at major intersections operational during extended power outages and also has arranged for generator transfer switches to be installed at the Municipal Building on Park Avenue.

“We have an agreement with a company to provide us with a generator that we would rent by the day if needed,” Klimm said.

Also since the 2014 ice storm, Klimm said, the way the City communicates with the public through the use of Code Red, social media and other strategies has been updated.

In addition, the City recently hired a former Aiken Standard editor, Tim O’Briant, to fill the new position of communications manager.

Klimm also believes the City has improved communication with disaster relief agencies to ensure that facilities in the City are ready for overnight shelter usage following a catastrophe.

The Aiken Department of Public Safety has upgraded its dispatch center and its handheld and mobile radios. That means Public Safety officers can communicate more effectively with other emergency agencies and utility companies during a crisis, said Public Safety Chief Charles Barranco.