Communication Key Issue in Sandy, Residents Say
Officials and residents agree at council meeting communication is where most of the problems evolved during storm's aftermath.
Dozens of residents filled the Municipal Building Wednesday night, hoping to get some answers about the response from Superstorm Sandy.
The subject of communication, or the lack thereof, was the hot topic of the night, as both residents and officials have previously expressed concerns about the information flow in the days after the storm.
The borough council meeting, which was the first since the storm, saw an exceptionally higher crowd than normal, with not one empty seat. Several residents couldn't get in the room and had to stand outside.
About 10 residents spoke in the public portion that lasted about an hour, many offering suggestions while critiquing the town's response to the storm that left the town two weeks without power.
Superstorm Sandy knocked down 100 poles, 550 wires and caused 225 tree problems in the borough, according to statistics Mayor Sylvia Petillo presented at the meeting from JCP&L.
Petillo said communication was a problem because both the borough and police department lost their Internet connection from the outages.
However, some residents didn't think the technology should have kept the officials from talking to the residents.
"Communication has been an issue long before technology," resident Philip Crosson Jr. said. "There are a lot of old ways that we can go back and deal with this."
Crosson, who is the Chatham Borough police chief, suggested creating a borough communications committee to involve the community to come up with other options.
Petillo also noted the borough had non-emergency, town hall and dispatch numbers working for residents to reach out for help anytime.
But several residents said at the meeting when they called the non-emergency number, they couldn't get through or left voicemails that were never returned.
Some suggested having signs or flyers posted around the borough for the community to receive information.
Others said there should be a designated person to report on exactly where JCP&L crews are working to keep residents up-to-date about roads closed or areas being worked on.
Resident Brenda Rossi Breheny said she comes to meetings occasionally, and came specifically on Wednesday to see what was going to be discussed on communication. After the meeting, she said she believes the council will be able to take away some of the ideas for improvement.
"They sound like they're going to make the changes that are needed for future situations, and we just have to see what they are deciding on and hope that it is beneficial to all the people," Breheny said.
Some residents said after the meeting they were surprised at how smoothly it went, after many have openly expressed frustration in the past two weeks.
"I thought it was pretty well-run," Henry Schmidt said. "I think that something's going to be done [about communication]. I think they're going to try to do something else to improve it. You learn from your mistakes, unfortunately it was a tough time for everyone and frustrations were high."
Petillo said the council will review all of the suggestions to implement new plans.
"We have to look at what happens with communication when everything that we're used to and familiar with is gone," she said. "That's something we have to look at in different ways. So changes will come from all of this, so truthfully I'm really glad that you're here because this is very productive."
Petillo noted that the borough had used a reverse 911 system to send alerts, but many residents didn't know about it or signed up. To sign up and receive alerts, visit the borough website.
No other council members commented throughout the meeting, but OEM director Officer Robert Haffner spoke and thanked everyone for their understanding and patience in the storm.
"I do know the frustrations were very high, but I think everybody came together, [and] helped where they needed," he said.
Capt. Tina Kraus, Lt. Thomas Kmetz and Chief Robert Brennan were also at the meeting.
Residents commended the first responders throughout the night and thanked the police officers and CERT volunteers.
Resident Marygrace Tiersch had a tree fall on her while she stepped outside of her Charles Place home for a second during the night of the storm, which resulted in 29 stitches on her head and a 4-hour brain surgery operation.
She came to the meeting to thank the first responders who saved her life.
"They got my family through one of the most horrific, awful experiences I've ever had," she said. "If it wasn't for this wonderful police department, I probably wouldn't be here."
Petillo said the past two weeks were made possible thorugh the team effort displayed by everyone in the community.
She closed with thanking all of the residents who helped others, as well as the OEM, police, DPW workers, volunteer firemen, CERT members, ambulance squad, animal control officer, municipal staff and council members, school officials, school staff and teachers, and the Red Cross and AmeriCorp volunteers.
"Their extraordinary and tireless efforts brought this community through," she said.