There were many things that went right with the town’s response to the October storm and the power outage that followed, but there is always room for improvement.
That was the purpose behind the board of selectmen’s public safety subcommittee meeting on Thursday night in Eno Memorial Hall — to hear what the public had to say about the response.
Of the 20 or so people present, a handful spoke, and most had praise for the town. Suggestions seemed to follow the same thread: improve communication between the utilities and the town and better prepare to help the elderly and those with medical and intellectual issues.
The evening started off with a recap of the storm by the town’s Emergency Management Director Kevin Kowalski.
The first storm-related call came in at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29, and that weekend the dispatchers at the Simsbury Police Department received more than 500 calls to 911. The town was also receiving Avon’s 911 calls as their system was down for 12 hours.
The calls ranged from wires down to car accidents, fires, sparking wires and damage to homes due to the falling trees and limbs. More than 20 structures had damage and there were four fires.
The fire department responded to more than 100 emergency calls in the first two days of the storm, said Kowalski, who is also the town’s Fire Marshal. Normally, the department responds to about 60 calls a month. Each firehouse was staffed around the clock for 10 days.
The town’s shelter opened Saturday night at Simsbury High School. That first night, 29 people stayed at the shelter. During the nine days it was in operation, technically called a mass care center or more causally called the Hotel Simsbury, a total of 7,423 people checked in. The shelter served a total of 5,960 hot meals and 1,220 people slept there.
Animal Control Officer Mark Rudewicz oversaw a pet shelter in the basement of Simsbury High School. It was the first time the town offered such a service and there were around 70 animals at one point residing there — from dogs to birds and ferrets.
The emergency operations center in town hall held meetings several times a day.
For a period of time the entire town was without power, as were many surrounding towns. Connecticut Light & Power was slow to respond, with one line crew in town, but eventually there were 195 line crews in town helping to restore power.
At the height of the storm, more than 38 roads in town were inaccessible. Kowalski said the priority was to makes sure safety personnel had access to all residents in town. That took precedence over power restoration until that goal was achieved. Then power was restored according to a predetermined plan, starting with the town center so residents could have access to gas stations, grocery stores and pharmacies. Then it moved to areas that needed the least amount of resources to restore power, as well as health care facilities and those for the elderly.
Kowalski and others stressed that the first line of defense is for residents to be prepared. Have a plan and have a kit.
Kowalski said his efforts and those of the subcommittee will center on being better prepared for worst case scenarios — yes, things could have been worse.
With temperatures mostly in the 40s, no pipes were in danger of freezing in homes and buildings. But if something like this happened and the temperature dipped below freezing, besides frozen pipes, the shelter would see even more people needing a warm place to stay.
That possibility brings up generator issues to increase refrigerator capacity and possibly run more shelters in town. The high school is the primary shelter and Squadron Line Elementary School is the secondary shelter.
There was concern that in the event of flooding or downed trees some Tariffville residents may not be able to get to either location. The possibility of a shelter at Tariffville Elementary School was mentioned.
Rob Poutasse, who lives on Riverside Road, urged the subcommittee to look into opening a shelter at Tariffville Elementary School in the future.
He also thanked the town for its effort during the storm, as well as Tropical Storm Irene.
“Your visibility alone was very, very reassuring,” he said.
Other suggestions were to coordinate better with Connecticut Light & Power and the town’s Department of Public Woks when it comes to addressing downed wires. There were public works crews ready to cut trees but without the go ahead from CL&P the directive is to stay away from power lines.
“That’s a bottle neck that absolutely needs to be fixed,” said State Rep. Linda Schofield.
Keeping up with tree trimming — guided by an arborist — was mentioned, as was seeking out specialized shelters for those who are most frail or are mentally disabled and need higher levels of care.
Creating a better and more complete list of seniors or those with special needs was mentioned and coordinating that list with one held by CL&P of people who have medical needs that are dependent on electricity.
First Selectman Mary Glassman praised the work of all the many volunteers, town staff and safety personnel who “never said no” during the storm and its aftermath.
“We were prepared for the storm,” she said.
The town has a plan, continues to keep up emergency training and runs drills in an effort to remain ready and is committed to making improvements.
Glassman, Kowalski and State Rep. Linda Schofield testified before Gov. Dannel Malloy’s Two Storm Panel as part of the efforts to improve the response, coordination and communication between the towns, state and utilities.
“There’s a lot of attention at the state level and at the CL&P level,” said Schofield.
The state has conducted its own investigation into the storm and the response of utilities and issued a report with suggestions that were reiterated at the meeting starting with better damage assessment. Schofield said improving real time awareness of trouble spots and sharing that information among utilities and the town should be considered.
One of the problems during a storm of this kind was getting information to people. When there is no power that can be tricky. Suggestions included using more A-frame signs around town to disseminate information and encouraging more people to sign up for CT Alert phone system (sign up with home phone and cell phone). Sign up here http://www.ctalert.gov.
Diane Phillips of Hickory Hill Road said she plans on being better prepared for another such event, but was looking for help in getting information and educating herself more about wires, generators and other issues.
“You were just so isolated,” she said.
She eventually spent time out of town and was grateful to the town for its response.
“I’m so proud to be a resident of Simsbury,” said Phillips.
Kowalski said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a free 204-page booklet called “Are You Ready?” that is available at the town hall and firehouses. You can also download a copy for free here http://www.ready.gov/are-you-ready-guide.
The Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company’s web site has information about preparedness, including the town’s plan, (http://www.simsburyfd.org/). For his part, Kowalski has been trying to get the word out about preparedness for years.
“There’s only so much we can do as a staff,” he said.
Kowalski said another possibility the town is looking into is an AM/FM transmitter for the town, Simsbury Radio if you will, as a way to get information out to residents.
Robert Kalechman of Hopmeadow Street said the state is behind in its technology and the utility companies have cut back on personnel, making them ill prepared.
“The state was not prepared,” he said.
Sue Bednarcyk of East Weatogue Street stressed the importance of caring for the elderly and frail, as well as opening up a shelter or even a pre-shelter during such events. She said she was frightened and didn’t know what to do to get her mother the care she needed before the shelter had opened. She said she was lucky a neighbor who had a generator offered to take them in.
“Not everybody was that lucky,” she said.
Police Chief Peter Ingverstsen said the moment the town hall is up and running on its generator it is open to people in need.
Shannon Knall of David Drive stressed the importance of helping those with intellectual disabilities. She has a child with autism and offered information on how to deal with individuals with autism during a crisis.
Carmine Centrella of Arrowhead Drive urged caution when possibly opening up additional shelters and wondered about a more regional approach. Kowalski said the issue there is access.
For all the suggestions that were brought up and the work to be done to improve the town’s response, Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company Chief Jim Baldis put everything in perspective.
“This is my generation’s ’55 flood,” he said, adding that the fact there was not one fatality or serious injury is incredible.
Deputy First Selectman John Hampton, chair of the subcommittee, said next steps are to fine tune the emergency plan and to integrate some of these suggestion.
“Comments are so important to make the emergency preparedness plan even better,” he said. “The good news is Simsbury is prepared, was prepared and always will be prepared.”