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When disaster strikes—whether it’s a sudden storm or the relentless creep of sea level rise—Doug McCracken knows the importance of having a plan. (Photo courtesy of Doug McCracken )
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After Tropical Storm Irene whipped across Connecticut on the last Sunday in August in 2011, followed that autumn by the bizarre “Snowtober,” a nor’easter that downed power lines, dumped as much as 24 inches of snow in various towns, and canceled Halloween celebrations, Doug McCracken started a new position: director of emergency preparedness for Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P).
A mechanical engineer who had more than 30 years of experience in electric utilities, Doug had spent 25 years working at six different nuclear power stations and had become licensed as a senior reactor operator.
“You’re trained and you’ve proven yourself competent [to operate] the reactor,” he explains. “So you understand all the buttons and switches and gauges—it’s a relatively complex machine.
“They want management to be as competent as the reactor operators on shift who are operating [the plant] day to day,” he continues. “Obviously, the nuclear units have a big emergency plan. That led me into emergency management.”
For Doug, everything he’s done is connected, from his interest in science as a kid to his engineering degree from UMass Lowell to getting his MBA as a working professional from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which offered a program through the University of Hartford.
Taking on the leadership of a new emergency preparedness department was exciting, Doug says.
“[W]e had just been hit with this huge storm, disaster, and you don’t know when the next one’s going to be,” he says. “Is it going to be next week, is it going to be in four weeks, or is it going to be 10 years?
“You have this hanging over you,” he continues. “You need to be ready. That was a new role for me and less than a year later [in October 2012] we got hit with Superstorm Sandy.”
By then, Doug’s team had established protocols for restoration, communication, and coordination with the state and municipalities. Even something as seemingly small as the responsibility for repairing a downed wire had to be worked out and agreed upon.
“We worked out all those details in advance so we wouldn’t be having the debate when you need to be clearing the road,” he says.
When Sandy hit, everyone “pulled together, including over 9,000 personnel working on behalf of CL&P, along with the first responders in each of the 149 towns in the CL&P service territory,” he says.
Not long after, Northeast Utilities merged with NStar, which supplied electricity and natural gas to central and eastern Massachusetts. Doug’s responsibilities and emergency operations expanded to Massachusetts and New Hampshire on behalf of a new company called Eversource.
His “charge was to standardize emergency operations consistent with best practices,” he says, which meant planning for the possibility of resources having to be reallocated from one state to another, depending on where needs arose.
In April 2014 Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna, Jr., formed a Sea Level Rise Climate Adaptation Committee, based on a recommendation in the town’s most recent Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. Doug saw an article in Harbor News and volunteered.
“I live right here in town and I saw what the inundation did during Sandy,” he says. “Coincidentally, we all kind of live very close to the marshes or to the water,” he says of the 11 committee members. “So everybody kind of had a personal interest as well as a big picture interest in helping the town.
“In Connecticut, each town has their committees, the state has committees,” he says. “There’s a lot of overlap and bureaucracies.
“Everyone wants to move things forward,” he continues. “So you’ve got to put pen to paper, coming up with action plans, and see where they intersect [and] try to get some momentum on some of these ideas on how we can prepare Old Saybrook” to be more resilient.
Together, the group decided that the town should implement actions to adapt and to mitigate issues.
“And in some cases, we may have to retreat,” Doug says. “If you have a house right on the water and the water level’s rising, it may come to the point in a couple of decades where you have to leave the house.”
It was a great group of people, Doug says, but the work could be challenging.
“We were a bunch of townspeople putting together a report, but we’re not scientists,” he says.
The committee split up into teams to address different areas and brought in a experts from the state and from academia. One geologist explained that not only are sea levels rising, but Connecticut is sinking.
“It’s not measurable year to year,” Doug says. “You’re talking over a long time period. But it’s another factor.”
A Foundation of Information
The report, which was published in December 2015, is part of what Doug calls a “foundation of information” that the town is building to help plan for the future. State grants have enabled the town to hire consultants to perform a Coastal Resilience and Adaptation Study and update the town’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan.
“The consultants are very good,” Doug says. “They’ve got everything in their computer models: GIS mapping, elevations, flood inundation maps, the FEMA maps. They’ve got Old Saybrook totally mapped and they know where the vulnerabilities are.
“If there were a big disaster, this is what it’s all about,” he says. Money becomes available after a disaster, but “you need to be ready with your Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan and say, ‘Here’s our plan and these are our projects that are already laid out.’ You need to have it in your plan to get the funding.”
Funding in advance of disaster is more difficult to come by, but Doug and Town Planner Christine Nelson get notices from the state and when grants are available and appropriate, she will apply.
To continue the momentum of the committee after the report was published, the Board of Selectmen and Planning Commission (PC) were tasked with keeping it alive, Doug says. Nelson asked Doug if he would be interested in serving as an alternate on the PC “to carry that flag forward.” Doug agreed, Fortuna appointed him, and he’s been serving for five years, renewing his interest after each municipal election.
“I attend all the meetings,” he explains. “If all the regular members are there, I can still participate” but he doesn’t get a vote. “If they don’t have a quorum, I’m put on. I would say more than half the time I’m seated.”
An important part of addressing sea level rise and hazard mitigation is community involvement, Doug says.
“It shouldn’t just be out of a town hall,” he says. “People need to start talking about it with their neighbors and say we’re all in this together.”
A Global Outlook
Doug is not a man of all work and no play. He and his wife, Becky, have two grown daughters and Doug is clearly immensely proud of them, and for good reason. Alli works for Amnesty International in Washington, D.C. as a campaigner for North America.
“She and her husband Raed, born and raised in Baghdad, have brought a whole new dimension to the family with respect to human rights and social justice,” he says.
Doug and Becky’s younger daughter, Kelly, was working for an insurance company in Boston when she told Doug she had taken out a loan and was heading to the University of Edinburgh to earn an MBA.
“I said, ‘I guess you’re a big girl now and you can make those decisions,’” he recalls.
Now Kelly works in London, at 20 Fenchurch Street, the building known as the Walkie Talkie, less than half a mile from the Tower of London. Doug and Becky have visited Kelly and her Scottish boyfriend, Alisdair, in Edinburgh as well as London, although their travels are currently on hold due to the pandemic. They’re also grateful that Washington, D.C. is just a train ride away.
Doug thinks that the family’s involvement with the First Congregational Church Old Lyme, “with its global partnerships and commitment to speaking out about human rights and injustices,” was an important influence on his girls’ lives.
“We have a constant family chat going on WhatsApp on our smartphones, and do Facetime videos as well to stay in touch,” he says.
He and Becky, who’ve been married almost 35 years, enjoy kayaking and get out onto the Connecticut River as much as they can. While Becky has retired from her job as an optometric assistant, Doug is forging on—for now.
“Eventually,” he says, “retirement will come around and it will leave time to open up additional doors, maybe globally, where our girls will be my mentors.”
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!