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Article Published January 23, 2019
Don Izzo: Ensuring the Best in the Worst Conditions
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

Westbrook Emergency Management Director Don Izzo refers to the main room of the Emergency Management Center as a fortress. The large room—where his volunteer team meets and much of the emergency planning and response takes place—was formerly the vault for the town clerk when the John P. Riggio Municipal Building served as Town Hall. It has 15-inch-thick concrete walls and sits 48 feet above sea level. Two screens are tuned to local TV stations, another provides National Weather Service data, and a fourth conveys information from Eversource about power outages in town and in surrounding towns. A storage room downstairs contains, among many other supplies, cots and blankets for hunkering down during a storm.

This is serious stuff.

It’s also very possibly an obsession for Don. And that’s a good thing for Westbrook.

Don brings a wealth of experience to the job—for which he receives a $10,000 annual stipend—from his 25 years with the American Red Cross in Connecticut as both volunteer and paid staff. He began there in 1983 as a volunteer Disaster Action Team member, helping local survivors of fires and providing “mass care”—shelter and food—to survivors of the 1989 Hamden tornado.

“I met some wonderful people under some adverse conditions who just lost everything,” he says.

Don was first deployed across the country in the lead-up to Hurricane Andrew, a category five hurricane that hit the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana in August 1992.

“That’s where I first saw massive destruction,” Don says. “You really start off with the basic human needs of food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and then interface with municipal government to determine damage assessment: What happened, what’s working and not working, and can we sustain human services?”

He served in south Florida as shelter manager at a school, came home for a week, and returned in September to assist with radio communications—Don has been an avid ham radio operator for nearly 30 years.

In 2005, he was hired by the Red Cross’s Southern Connecticut chapter, based in New Haven, as disaster director, serving about 800,000 people in surrounding communities. He trained volunteers, managed disaster teams and emergency plans, and participated in disaster exercises locally and around the state.

‘My Big One’

That August, a storm surfaced over the Bahamas. It would soon take 1,800 American lives and become the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

“Hurricane Katrina was my big one that affected me emotionally,” Don says. “About three days prior to my departure—they were getting ready to send me down to Louisiana, exact location to be determined—when an email came into the office” telling him the deployment was canceled.

Those preparing to leave were confused, having watched the disaster unfold on television, knowing the people there were in desperate need. Then reports came through the CB radio network about people leaving the stricken areas to stay with family in other parts of the country. Many were headed to Connecticut.

“I’ll never forget this for as long as I live and it still breaks me up a little bit,” he says. “A family of four came in in a beat-up car—it had a lot of mud on it, the windows were dirty, they hadn’t showered in days, and they were knocking on the door” of the Red Cross office as Don was about to leave for the night.

“We had a very old building. I said, ‘The showers are not the best, they’re a little on the older side, but please—’ We have what are called comfort kits that we use for our local fire victims: you know, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste: toiletries,” he says. “I said ‘Please, go inside, take as much time as you need.’”

He called for assistance, “Because within two hours I had two more families, and others coming in, too,” he says.

“That was very hard seeing these people coming in like that,” he continues. “The faces of the children really hit home.”

Katrina “really hit hard about who we are as a society, how we respond,” he says. “And it actually helped develop me for the work that I was going to be doing…not realizing that I would be coming over here to the municipal side of emergency services.”

A Challenging Start

Not long after, in 2007, Don and his family moved to Westbrook. He took a job as an emergency dispatcher with Connecticut State Police Troop E in Mountville and joined the town’s volunteer fire department, on which he continues to serve. He was asked by George Pytlik, then the emergency management director, to serve as his deputy director, an unpaid position. Don accepted and set to work creating one-, three-, and five-year emergency plans for the town.

In May 2011, Pytlik submitted his resignation and recommended Don to succeed him, The Board of Selectmen (BOS) approved. Three months later, on Sunday, Aug. 28, Tropical Storm Irene struck Connecticut. Superstorm Sandy followed 14 months later.

After Irene, “this town went for five to seven days without power,” Don says. “We partnered with the Red Cross; I called in my former colleagues: ‘I need someone to run a shelter for me.’ They did. We announced it to the public.”

But Don wasn’t satisfied with the overall response.

“I ripped up everything after Hurricane Irene,” Don says, referring to the emergency plans he’d worked so hard crafting. “I was very frustrated. The storm was over, power came back on, lights came back on, everybody was happy. I was not happy. I felt that we could do better.”

The emergency plans, he felt, were no longer relevant. Things had changed, and adaptation was necessary. The Red Cross had recognized that it can’t provide a shelter in every town that needs one—it now has a regional shelter plan, with the nearest shelter to Westbrook in Killingworth. There were continuing innovations in technology that the town had yet to embrace. And, thanks to climate change, even natural disasters are evolving.

“I inherited a department that back in its day worked extremely well,” Don says. “But now that we were changing, we had a new type of disaster. How you interfaced with the state of Connecticut had changed, too. It’s still changing. Reporting procedures are all different. The days of using clipboards—now everything is an email. It’s no longer a fax; it’s a PDF being sent. What happens if you lose your Internet? Internet is so vital to us now. So we put in backup services. Everything I do in emergency services has a backup to a backup. Redundancy is the key.”

During Sandy, Don was alone in the emergency center with his parakeet, Louise. The volunteers who were available to help were stationed at the elementary school, along with nearly 300 residents.

“She’s squawking like crazy,” he remembers. “The sky was getting dark, the winds were kicking up, and all of a sudden I look up and that traffic light is now horizontal. And my Comcast went out—boom! And I start to hear the popping of the transformers.”

That’s when he realized he needed a backup television provider.

“Redundancies have been put in so if we lose the power, we have a generator. If that generator goes, I have another generator,” he continues; the same now holds true for Internet and telephone services.

“Our radio room back there,” Don says, pointing to the office off the main room of the emergency center, “we can communicate with anybody in the town, outside the town, the state, and the feds. Redundancy: like an onion. Some of that was already here prior to me, but not at the extent that it is” now.

Raising Readiness

Don proposed new plans to the BOS and the Board of Finance, saying he’d need extra money to put them in place. Both boards supported him. He decided to take on emergency management full on to reduce the town’s dependence on the Red Cross. Based on the work he’d done with the organization, he knew he had the skills and experience to do it, and that it could be accomplished at very little cost to the town.

Don put together the Emergency Management Volunteer Team with the seriousness of interviewing for paid positions. Nearly 50 people applied. Everyone was interviewed and the requirements were made clear.

“I told them, ‘You’re not going to get paid, it’s going to be long hours, you’re going to be on your feet for long hours, you’re going to be away from your family,” he recalls.

Naturally, some people decided it wasn’t for them, but around 20 people were chosen. The team meets three or four times a year.

“We’ll always have a training within those meetings,” Don says.

“You’re going to work harder at first,” he told the members. “I need to get everyone up to a certain level. The basic thing everyone needs to do is how to go into that school [Daisy Ingraham Elementary] and turn it into a shelter.”

To get information out to the community, Don created a website westbrookem.com as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts.

For the website, Don says, “I wanted to create a very easy library resource area… Anyone at 7th grade [reading] level to 80 years old can be able to get onto this website and start reading.”

Information is also provided on the site via video, “because some people like videos, some people like to read. The content is exactly the same. I need to appeal to as many audiences as possible. I don’t want to lose somebody.”

The website content changes according to the season. At the time of writing, the site was winter-focused, featuring an article on preparing for long-term power outages. Also available are links to a tide chart, food safety information, recommendations for water storage, and other information.

“We use the word ‘appropriate,’” Don says. “Your emergency planning is going to be different than mine. Do you have young babies, do you have older kids, are your kids gone? It’s just you, your husband? Everyone’s scenario is different and thus their emergency planning should be different.”

Preparedness is, of course, primary in Don’s outlook and in his training of his volunteer team. While FEMA recommends preparing for two- to three-day power outages, Don, based on past experience, recommends preparing for five to seven days without electricity.

“If it’s going to be more than this block of time, we’re calling in the state and the feds to help us,” he explains.

Whenever possible—because not all natural disasters are detected in advance—his planning involves a NASA-esque T-minus system, with “T” being the day of the anticipated storm landfall.

“I call it the T-minus factor,” Don says. “Around day 10, I start planning and watching very closely...Depending on the severity of what’s going to come in and hit us, we’ll determine by day six, where am I? Am I getting the fire department involved? I won’t tell another department what to do; we just give them updates.

“Each day determines how many more people get involved depending on, Is it going to hit us?” he continues. “Sometimes we may not know until Day 4, because weather patterns change all the time.”

As it gets closer, “we’re starting to talk to the public. The website changes. Social media starts changing.” He tells the public, “Start activating your emergency plan.”

“The day the hurricane affects us, we’re inside,” he says. “We’re bunkering down like anyone else. It’s not until the aftermath is totally over and it’s safe to go back outside [that] we hit the streets.”

Don now also works as an emergency dispatcher for the town of Middletown.

“I love my jobs,” he says. “I work 60 to 80 hours per week between both jobs.”

But he can always be reached.

“If I’m not here, my [volunteer emergency] team leader’s in charge and she knows exactly what to do,” he says. “I have the utmost confidence in her.”

Westbrook, he says, is “a wonderful town. Like every small town in America, you have your challenges...[but] the partnerships are just incredible. I learned that with the Red Cross. You gotta have partnerships and you treat people equally. Teamwork, support—I just kind of brought everything from there over here.

“I’m always learning, too,” he says. “I always want to know, is there a better way to do it?”