Law enforcement agencies have plans in place to deal with the unique challenges that natural disasters present, but an event on the scale of superstorm Sandy could be particularly difficult for authorities along the East Coast.
Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida has worked through many hurricanes, including three within two months in 2004. His office has also dispatched deputies to assist other agencies during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan.
“This truly, truly has the potential to be the worst storm that we’ve experienced in our lives,” he told HLN Monday.
According to Judd, a lot of work goes into planning and organization before a storm hits, but the evacuation of civilians from areas that could be hardest hit is one of the most important responsibilities for law enforcement.
“The number one thing that we tell everybody is, listen to your state and local officials,” Judd said. “If you’re in a storm area, you need to evacuate.”
He said people can put themselves and rescue workers in danger if they stay behind, or they could be stuck without help for days. Rescues are prioritized based on who is most severely injured.
“There’s going to reach a point in time if you’ve not evacuated, then you need to hunker down wherever you are,” Judd said.
He added that there are some things people did during Hurricane Katrina that got them killed, and he offered advice for those who refuse to leave evacuation zones during superstorm Sandy: do not climb into your attic if you do not have a way out of the attic when it floods; do not use gas grills indoors to try to keep warm; and do not use a generator without proper ventilation.
“We saw people die basically because they didn’t listen and get out,” he said.
Judd emphasized the importance of people in the community working together to protect themselves and others, because there likely will not be enough government resources to get to everybody right after the storm.
“Neighbors have to look out for neighbors,” he said. “Families have to look out for families.”
Judd said looting is not a major concern during the storm or immediately afterward because “even the thugs are trying to stay alive.”
After that, though, people need to look out for their own property, according to Judd. If there storm is as bad as has been predicted, “this is going to be like the Wild West out there for the next few days” in some areas, and the life-and-death situations will be authorities’ top priority.
“Our first job is to saves lives and prevent people from dying,” Judd said.
Retired New York State Police Captain Robert Buchholz told HLN the role of law enforcement in dealing with a natural disaster is large, but officers’ responsibilities are often dictated by the size and population of their community.
Buchholz, who has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience and currently works with AJS Police Consulting, said police coordinate their efforts closely with local and regional FEMA officials before, during and after a natural disaster. Officers are often the ones on the forefront making contact with citizens to facilitate evacuations secure property and maintain safety.
“It’s really kind of a large cross-section of responsibility,” he said.
Evacuation procedures can involve alerting residents with a loud speaker from a patrol car or even going door-to-door and apartment-to-apartment telling people they need to leave. According to Buchholz, law enforcement officers in rural and suburban areas could face additional problems because their populations are more spread out and it could be difficult to get to people.
Authorities have many tools to combat crime and looting during and after a storm, but Buchholz said the presence of officers on the streets alone may be enough.
“Police visibility. That’s the number one crime deterrent,” he said. When criminal see a police car or patrolling officer, “the ne'er–do–wells want to go somewhere else.”
Like Judd, Buchholz said disaster response plans are developed and practiced far in advance. Agencies hold exercises so that, when a hurricane does arrive, “the procedures, the policies, the protocols, if you will, are well-known, well-prepared and well-rehearsed.”
Depending on the severity of the disaster, local officials will put the appropriate procedures into place, Buchholz said, and police will be out in the community putting those plans into action.
Whatever impact Sandy has before it passes, Judd remains optimistic about the ability of the public to cope with the damage.
“You will see the best of people come together in the aftermath of the storm…” he said. “This whole event is all hands on deck.”