PROVINCETOWN — Perched at the tip of Cape Cod, surrounded by water on all sides, Provincetown is at heightened risk of weather-based emergencies: storms, saltwater flooding, and extreme cold among them. But as in many small towns, the job of planning for such emergencies has historically bounced around town hall.
The police, fire, health, and public works departments all have roles here. While police and fire chiefs serve as site commanders during a crisis, emergency management coordinators are responsible for developing the plans and procedures that guide the town during a disaster and that ultimately allow it to receive government relief money afterwards.
David Panagore, now a member of the finance committee, was the town manager in 2016 when the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., happened. He was still in office on Jan. 4, 2018 when Winter Storm Grayson hit.
The extreme low pressure of that storm helped raise the waters in the harbor over and across the beach at Gosnold Street, sending a river of salt water across Commercial Street and downhill to Bradford Street, flooding the town hall basement and numerous surrounding homes and businesses. The town was struck by another road-flooding nor’easter, Storm Riley, just two months later, on March 2 and 3.
“We had the natural disasters of the flood,” Panagore said in a recent interview. “We also had manmade ones of gun violence in America. It was at that moment, when we were responding to the flood, that I didn’t want to ever be caught unaware or unprepared again.”
At the time, Police Chief Jim Golden, who can be a site commander in emergencies, was also working on the town’s unfinished Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). But given Provincetown’s unique environmental and social exposures, Panagore wanted to create a new position to advance that project. It would also include obtaining state and county resources for the emergency shelter site at the Veterans Memorial Community Center, which was being handled as a side role by the health director at that time.
Eric Sussman served as the emergency management and transportation coordinator from April 2019 to June 2020, during which he completed the Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan for the town and advanced the CEMP. His job description also involved an overhaul of the town’s parking system.
“To the powers that be, it made sense and was cheap to combine these projects and find one unicorn that could pull them both off,” Sussman said.
The balance between parking and emergency management in the role was “actually cut and dry,” Sussman said. With the summer approaching, he focused his energy on installing new parking technology and overseeing its performance through the tourist season, with the expectation that he would shift into more full-time emergency management work in the fall.
As the year went on, Sussman was serving on the Cape Cod Rapid Transit Authority, was in county-level talks to expand Provincetown’s shelter capabilities, and was fleshing out the CEMP and the Flood Hazard Mitigation plan for the town. “It was all really exciting stuff,” he said.
Then the pandemic took hold. “Instead of focusing my energy on completing the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which we needed, Covid sucked all the air out of the room,” Sussman said. “I can remember pretty clearly the first three months people were yelling and shouting ‘build a hospital!’ We said we’re doing everything we can do in our power to protect this community — but building field hospitals is well out of our control,” Sussman said.
Panagore had left as town manager by that time. David Gardner had served as interim town manager, and Robin Craver was near the end of her very short term as town manager. Sussman accepted an emergency management role in May 2020 in another state.
Erin Ellis, who was the town’s project administrator at the time, was at first slated to take over “parking duties, crisis planning, and communications.” However, Ellis, who is now the assistant town clerk in Orleans, told the Independent that she was put in charge of parking, while former Harbormaster Rex McKinsey took over the emergency management portfolio, an account confirmed by current assistant town manager Dan Riviello.
McKinsey, who had already been moved from harbormaster to marine coordinator in 2019, held the emergency management coordinator portfolio for almost exactly two years, until June 2022.
Neither McKinsey nor Chief Golden would comment for this article.
McKinsey’s position was funded in the budget that town meeting voters approved in April 2022 — but by the time McKinsey resigned his position on June 30 of that year, the job itself had been eliminated.
Sherry Prada, Provincetown’s deputy DPW director, was formally designated as the town’s new emergency management coordinator in January 2023. The portfolio came with an additional $10,000 annual stipend, Riviello told the Independent. Chief Golden is the emergency management director.
Prada is tasked with supervising the town’s FEMA and MEMA reporting, liaising with state and federal agencies and securing grant money for emergency preparedness, managing and maintaining local shelter capacity, and “coordinating all components of the emergency management system” in conjunction with the police and fire departments and ambulance services, Riviello said.
The Local Emergency Preparedness Committee listed on the town website consists of Golden and Prada.
During the December 2022 storm that flooded several areas in Provincetown’s East End, including Daggett Lane and Howland Street all the way to Bradford Street, Prada was not yet the emergency management coordinator. “I played more of a DPW role with dispatching staff to help with flooding,” she wrote to the Independent.
Asked how she balances the emergency management portfolio with her responsibilities as deputy DPW director, Prada wrote that she “can’t really answer that. I’ve been doing emergency management stuff here my whole career, just in varying degrees.”
Riviello said that the emergency management coordinator also receives direct reports of damage to town-owned property and then transmits them to the town manager.
After the January 2018 storm, the town filed for a $1,145,833.67 damage reimbursement from MEMA (Mass. Emergency Management Agency) and submitted another $130,382.64 after the March 2018 storm, Riviello said.
Because the damage in the December 2022 storm affected only private properties, Riviello said, the town did not assess the cost of the damage. “The Town was focused on working with property owners to ensure they were aware of the damage, properties were safe, and permits were applied for and received in a prompt manner to ensure work could be done to repair damage to homes and businesses,” he wrote.
“We’ve received a partial reimbursement related to claims for the damage at Harbor Hill but are still working with the insurance company on a final settlement,” Riviello wrote this week.
Riviello has also now joined the emergency management team, said Town Manager Alex Morse, “during events that require an elevated response.”