As Hurricane Sandy approached the eastern seaboard, Massachusetts issued a preemptive call for help in assisting with the state's emergency management and response. Among those answering that call was the State of Minnesota, and a five-member team was mustered for rapid deployment to the commonwealth in advance of Sandy's landfall.
Excelsior Fire District Chief Scott Gerber was tapped to lead Minnesota's detachment and coordinate with Massachusetts' emergency management teams before, during and after Sandy's arrival. The team touched down in Boston on Saturday and has spent most of their time in an underground bunker located in a nearby suburb.
"The team that is in Massachusetts is a multi-disciplined team made up of members from Homeland Security, Hennepin County Medical Center, Allina Medical and the Excelsior Fire District," Gerber said. "In the time we've spent here in Massachusetts, we have been assigned to support the emergency management activities in the emergency operations center."
Gerber said the team has over the last 72 hours been involved with planning, logistics, operations, communications and community outreach.
"There are no counties in Massachusetts, so 350-plus cities all report directly back to the state," Gerber said. "That has been part of our role, helping local coordination with the state."
Gerber and his team learned Tuesday afternoon that they would be reassigned to New York.
"As Hurricane Sandy came through and impacted the commonwealth of Massachusetts, certainly we were not impacted as hard as some of the other areas, so today the activities have been moving from response to recovery," Gerber said.
Most of the damage being seen in the Massachusetts area in minor in nature, such as limited structure impacts, tree damage, power outages and minor flooding.
"Because of the impacts, Massachusetts now begins to move from a requesting state to an assisting state offering help to other places," Gerber said. "Part of that transition is that our resources get redirected from here to the state of New York. We will be moving our team and are currently in the process of planning to make that move."
Gerber went on to say he and his team would be stationed in Albany, where New York's emergency management response services are being coordinated.
"At this time we understand our primary role will be planning logistics in areas of the emergency operations center, but the exact details of what that will all encompass we'll learn when we arrive there tomorrow," Gerber said.
This is not the first time Chief Gerber has deployed to a disaster zone. He was also part of a team that was dispatched to the northeast last year in response to Hurricane Irene and was among Minnesota's nearly 500-member task force sent to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—serving as a fire task force commander.
"As a country we've learned so many things since Katrina," Gerber said. "That's one thing that as an emergency management community I think we can all be proud of. We've been able to take those lessons and improve upon how we respond—even during local emergencies in Minnesota."
Gerber added Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita were a different type of storms than Hurricane Sandy, and the mission of Minnesota's first responders has been molded to fit the current mission and municipal need.
"At the time of Hurricane Katrina, all of our operations were primarily field responses, whereas for this particular mission is primarily emergency management—being able to coordinate things from a statewide perspective," Gerber said.
Gerber and his team's response to the hurricane zone are coordinated through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), which has been around since the 1990s and currently includes all 50 states and several U.S. territories.
"It is the national mutual aid system," Kim Ketterhagen, Minnesota's EMAC Coordinator, said. "It is how we move resources from state to state and around the country, by compact, during times of need."
Crediting what he called "forward thinking state legislators," Ketterhagen went on to say that Minnesota state law allows for rapid deployment of local, state, jurisdictional and even private resources to disaster areas. There are currently 12 states providing direct assistance and resources to the hurricane zone—a number that is expected to grow in the coming days.
"As this disaster grows in complexity and changes, we have to be able to respond to it in a more complex and changing manner," Ketterhagen said. "Now that we've completed most of our tasks in Massachusetts, this team and the flexibility of this team will be going to New York to assist with their needs."
Exactly how long Gerber and his team will be in New York remains unclear.