In Somerset County, emergency officials prepared for Sandy the same as for Hurricane Irene last year, with added staff, generators on hand and vehicles fueled up. But the county wasn't prepared for the heavy winds that sent floodwaters into Crisfield.
First responders rescued people from about 400 homes in Somerset, including 550 people in Crisfield, said Steven Marshall, the county's emergency services director of 20 years.
"We feel like there is a lot of apathy with evacuation," Marshall said. "This is the first time in my tenure here there was a concern we weren't getting help to all of the people who needed help, because our emergency responders were overwhelmed."
When two county road crew members stepped from their truck Monday to clear debris, a tree fell on it and totaled the vehicle. That night, crews were called in at 8 p.m. only to venture back out at daybreak.
A few hours into the storm on Monday, the roof blew off police headquarters and the city's command center had to be relocated in the driving rain.
"[They] put their lives on the line to help their neighbors," said Rex Simpkins, president of the Somerset Board of Commissioners.
Frustration in Garrett
In Garrett County, road crews are used to plowing a couple of feet of snow, but they weren't prepared to handle the weight of the wet snow that fell along the Appalachians, said Jim Raley, chairman of the county's Board of Commissioners. The sparsely populated county of about 30,000 doesn't have the staff to handle the crisis it faced.
"Crews can plow 2 to 3 feet, but they can't when the snow has knocked trees down into utility lines and don't know if it's safe to proceed or not," Raley said
At least one roof collapse was reported in the county Friday, and nearly half the residents were still without power.
Some expressed their frustration with the slow pace of recovery during a meeting Thursday with O'Malley at an Oakland shelter. Joshua Waters, a 28-year-old Army veteran who was visiting the shelter with his 6-month-old daughter, Ava, nearly broke down as he expressed what he felt was a disregard for his skill set by county officials. Waters studied geographic information systems — interactive computerized mapping — in the Army and, while working as a county intern, compiled maps for Garrett fire stations of nearby hazards and needy residents. But they were never used.
"They rolled the dice and they got a storm that showed them they were deficient," Waters said. "There wasn't enough precautionary measures taken at the county level. We've been completely dependent on the state to come in and save the day."
After the meeting, O'Malley spoke to Waters. "Maybe they'll need you now," O'Malley said, before pulling an aide over to exchange information with Waters. "We're always looking for people with GIS capabilities, whether it's out here or somewhere else."
The governor then looked over at a local mayor, pointed at Waters and said, "He's got talents that could be put to use."
Others voiced concerns about a lack of information and planning for key infrastructure. Cellphone towers used for 911 dispatch calls were being run on diesel and propane generators after they lost power, but by Thursday, no one had been able to check on fuel levels because the equipment was high in the mountains, inaccessible. Concerns about water and sewage treatment plants also were raised.
Message of preparedness
Given the unpredictability of impacts across the state, emergency officials said they have no choice but to broadcast a message of preparation as storms like Sandy approach. While some have criticized driving restrictions in Baltimore during the height of the storm, for example, the policy could have prevented the diversion of first responders from more pressing needs, Maloney said.
Messages encouraging preparedness are repeated and reinforced to free up first responders' resources as much as possible, preventing crises that could be avoided, said Barry Scanlon, president of Witt Associates, a Washington disaster-management consulting firm where Mallette previously worked.
People need to understand the risks and how they should be prepared, Scanlon said.
In California, for example, "the vast majority of people understand they're on their own for the first 72 hours" after an earthquake, he said. "It has been hammered into them since kindergarten. It doesn't happen overnight."
Officials recognize that some people might disregard future warnings if they think warnings were exaggerated, but that doesn't change the fact that Sandy could have been much more destructive in Maryland.
"You can't worry about hurting somebody's feelings or crying wolf too much," Mallette said. "These decisions are not just made off the cuff. They're thought about. They're based on the best weather information we have with us."
State and local emergency officials plan to conduct reviews of their performance during Sandy to find room for improvement. While many knew they were sure to find deficiencies, they were thankful to have been spared worse in Maryland.
In Crisfield, for example, despite the hundreds of rescues and what are expected to be major property losses, no casualties were reported.
"If you look at it knowing that you used the resources that you had ... and no one was hurt and no one was killed, it's hard to look at it right now and know anything that you would do different," Simpkins said. "Because in the end, that's your goal."