After brutal winter in ’15, Providence has new leadership to manage storms

PEMA Director Michael Borg (left) and DPW Director Russell Knight (right) say they're prepared for winter. (Photos by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As Providence residents brace for what could be the first significant snowfall of the winter, the two high-ranking military veterans charged with overseeing the city’s public works department and its emergency management agency say the city is well-equipped to tackle whatever comes its way.

But in their first full winter working in municipal government, Public Works Director Russell Knight and Providence Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) Director Michael Borg recognize they need to deliver results in a city still haunted by one of the snowiest years on record in 2015.

Knight, a retired Navy captain who served four years as vice president for administration and operations at the U.S. Naval War College, said a 13% increase in the city’s snow budget – it now stands at $1.8 million – helped purchase new snow removal equipment. He also said the department has renewed its emphasis on “planning and preparation” so workers are ready for the challenges they’ll face.

“From what I’ve seen as an outsider looking in, the city did have some challenges [last year],” Knight said. “But every city in the Northeast had challenges.”

The public works department now has about 30 large trucks and 10 smaller ones as well as sidewalk plows, according to Knight. If needed, the city can call another 90 vendors in to help with snow removal. But in a city with more than 421 miles of roads, Knight stressed that residents should have patience as they wait for plows.

While the added resources will help, Knight said he hopes his military experience brings the department a “sense of organization.”

“It’s not about change, but a different perspective,” Knight said.

That means improved training, including pairing newer drivers with veterans in order to make sure they learn how to navigate roads throughout Providence. He said inspectors will be assigned to each of the city’s 15 wards to ensure quality. And he stressed that he wants to “manage the fatigue” of drivers who often spend more than 18 consecutive hours on the road.

The bottom line, Knight said, is residents will notice a difference this year.

“When people go out there, they’ll see the roads will be cleared more efficiently,” he said.

‘Best insurance policy the city could have’

If public works represents the city’s front line in most weather-related incidents, Borg’s job is to make sure the city stays up and running on the most severe occasions.

As head of PEMA, Borg, who spent his entire career in the Army and most recently worked with Knight as a senior advisor at the Naval War College, oversees a five-person office that includes a command center where employees from all city departments can be stationed in the event of an emergency.

PEMA operates out of a two-story Charles Street building that was built in 1930. What was once a bank has been transformed into a state-of-the-art facility that has the ability to “assume all of government’s capabilities” if necessary, Borg said. It also includes a mini mayor’s office, sleeping quarters for dozens of volunteers, training space, a pharmaceutical trailer, supplies, and a mobile command post “if we need to extend the reach of this facility.”

“This is the best insurance policy the city could have,” he said.

Borg said the primary concern for PEMA is actually hurricanes, because power is more likely to go out during those storms – “about 80% of all your problems get solved when your power is turned back on,” he said – but he indicated his fear during the winter is ice storms.

He said the goal for PEMA is to provide a “place to come together to collaborate and coordinate and establish priorities and then make decisions.”

“What we do is collect information throughout the city,” Borg said. He pointed to interactive maps that can identify the location of most plows in the city and track the course of storms.

Borg replaced the well-respected former PEMA director Peter Gaynor, who was tapped to lead the R.I. Emergency Management Agency by Gina Raimondo after she was elected governor. Already considered one of the city’s highest-functioning departments, Borg said the transition has been smooth.

“It was like a relay race,” he said. “Pete handed the baton back and I grabbed it.”

Like Knight, Borg said he’s confident the city prepared for the coming snow.

“I think the city is in great hands,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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