During the critical 48 hours following Superstorm Sandy’s unwelcome visit to Newtown, local emergency preparedness officials lauded the efforts of the new Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), as well as caring neighbors for helping to ease the burden on first responders and those handling priority incidents across town.
Emergency Management Director William Halstead, who is also chief of Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue and the town fire marshal, said he believed all five town fire stations had volunteers in house for at least the first couple of days after the October 29 hurricane wrapped in a massive nor’easter.
At the Sandy Hook headquarters, at least 30 volunteers and some family members bunked in the first night after the storm because most if not all were without power. But this also provided a ready crew to immediately respond to calls when needed.
A couple of others who were without power for several days brought campers or RVs and set up temporary residence in the fire station’s parking lot, Chief Halstead said. While he is in the process of producing a poststorm report and planning a town staff meeting, the local official was among several who praised the 18 local CERT volunteers who all turned out to help, particularly with the public shelter that was established at Newtown High School.
“The CERT team was a big plus,” Chief Halstead said. “They were instrumental in operating our shelter, as well as those who helped answer phones at the town Emergency Operations Center.”
He said the phone assistants helped screen or handle incoming calls, which freed up town dispatchers to handle the extensive amount of radio traffic among ambulance, fire, highway, and police units.
Deputy Emergency Management Director Maureen Will, who also runs Newtown’s Emergency Communications Department, said the storm’s arrival involved bizarre timing, because the local CERT had just scheduled its first set of workshops to learn how to establish and maintain an emergency shelter.
“So this incident was really a trial by fire for all our CERT members,” Ms Will said. “It was all on them, with only a cross-trained Red Cross volunteer to help guide them.”
But Ms Will said the volunteers were able to set up and run the shelter “pretty much on their own, and they did an excellent job.”
As she was forming the CERT group, Ms Will said several said they felt extremely frustrated following the two storms last year.
“They felt helpless to lend a hand when they saw emergency crews straining to handle all the work, especially after several days,” she said. “But this time they were there, they did everything they were supposed to do, and many expressed that this time they felt like they were able to make a difference.”
Ms Will and Health District Director Donna Culbert also noted that residents seemed better prepared out in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods.
“There wasn’t the panic we saw following last year’s storms, even when the threat of snow came, everyone was saying ‘don’t worry about it.’ We also saw a lot more calls from neighbors who said they were checking on the elderly and frail, and alerting us when they saw deteriorating conditions so we could respond with the proper assistance,” Ms Will said.
Ms Culbert, who is also the town’s emergency management assistant, agreed.
“I think we did better this year, and I think the town did better,” Ms Culbert noted. “The most fragile and vulnerable people did better. They took their lessons from last year and prepared themselves. It’s not to say that we didn’t have folks that had unique and special needs that had to be filled, [especially after] more than three days without power — it impacts even the best laid plans.”
Planning Was A Plus
Ms Culbert said she did not detect the level of “powerless just-under-the-surface hysteria” that she felt last year for folks who are most vulnerable and fragile.
“Some were newly in their circumstances but had a plan, devised with their family and maybe their physician. Some were being tended to and monitored by their neighbors,” she said. “Some called us directly with their questions, requests, and concerns. We had better preparation and better communication.”
Ms Culbert also thanked Masonicare, “a truly monumental partner in assisting those residents who needed more support. Whether it was residents that needed a place to stay for that support, or even just to take a warm shower, Masonicare opened their doors and their hearts to us,” she said.
She said the Newtown High School shelter served the community from Monday afternoon, October 29, until Sunday afternoon, November 4, after the last resident who needing shelter was returned home.
Besides the CERT volunteers who worked shifts and were there for every moment that the shelter was operated, Ms Will and Ms Culbert also praised the high school custodial staff, who were “readily available and worked to make sure the operation ran seamlessly.”
“Any facility issue was promptly addressed,” Ms Culbert said, adding that Chartwells personnel also came to help numerous times for meals. The Blue Colony and Pizza Palace generously donated hot food on several occasions as well.
Code Red Reassurances
Ms Culbert said First Selectman Pat Llodra’s daily Code Red calls were informative and reassuring to those who had no other way to receive info. And twice-daily meetings at the Emergency Operations Center allowed the town officials, schools administration, and emergency management staff to collaborate, to elevate the most current issues and priorities, and to allocate energy, personnel, and resources where they needed to go.
“Fact sheets went out regularly, were posted online, and were also physically posted in a variety of locations in the community,” she said.
Besides staffing for response, all five volunteer fire companies offered water to residents, via hose, for filling containers. Bottled water was distributed at the Parks & Recreation maintenance garage on Trades Lane, and several non-CERT volunteers were willing and able to come and help with that distribution, Ms Culbert said.
Newtown Municipal Center was made available daily for folks to get warm, to charge electronics, to work with wireless Internet, to see other people. And as soon as it was up and running, the library provided respite to residents.
“Dumpsters were made available to assist with the unpleasant task of disposing of the spoiled food, with Selectman Will Rodgers working with Associated Refuse owner Pat Caruso to make that happen,” she said.
Town Social Services staff worked to remain in touch with those residents in need, and coordinate any response required.
“In addition to its regular responsibilities, police performed numerous welfare checks on residents who had been identified by friends, neighbors, and out-of-towners,” Ms Culbert noted. And Public Works and Parks and Rec crews worked to make the town safer and more accessible for days and nights on end.”
Newtown Youth Academy and Masonicare offered shower facilities to the community.
“But while the town and other facilities offered many services to help bridge the gap, the fact is, people want to be home. That’s where all that neighborly caring was paramount. It helped people stay whole and it also probably strengthened their neighborhood. We can’t thank those neighbors enough,” Ms Culbert said.
“I can thank those who are readily identifiable and gave much of their blood, sweat, and tears; some carrying heavy loads, others offering gentle hands, some providing housing and food, still others providing capable and caring skill and words — but there are still so many people who aren’t so readily identifiable — the folks who looked out for each other, helped each other in large and small ways and still are, are all part of the response team,” she added. “We have extraordinary people here. They care, they help, they give.”