Town’s team assesses responses in Sandy’s aftermath

The town’s level of communication with the public during Superstorm Sandy was improved over the two major storms in 2011, and Connecticut Light & Power Co.’s response was improved as well. These are the assessments made by the town’s emergency management team.

First Selectman Natalie Ketcham and town Health Officer Doug Hartline, both members of the emergency management team, said it helped that CL&P had a storm liaison in Sandy’s aftermath.

“The liaison was here the whole time,” said Ms. Ketcham.

The town has “a blue sky liaison” for day-to-day issues, dealing with general issues, not entire circuit issues. That’s the job of the “storm liaison,” she said.

Mr. Hartline said that at the meeting after Sandy, the CL&P response was discussed. “We got the sense they learned a lot from the storm, but they still need to fine-tune their [power restoration] process,” he said.

After Tropical Storm Irene and post Alfred, the nor’easter, both of which left the town without power for days, Ms. Ketcham said, the town has implemented the position of public information officer. Candy Wood was appointed to that post in the fall. She provided the press and the public with daily information on things like shelters and the location of potable water and electronic recharging stations.

“The feedback from the public was very favorable about our level of communication,” Ms. Ketcham said.

Having people informed lessened the traffic at town hall, said Mr. Hartline.

The town’s Facebook page was also used as an information source for the first time, and the town benefited from the fact that cell service was not lost, said Mr. Hartline.

“We learned from the fall [2011] storms that if cell service is down, texting is the most reliable form of communication,” said Ms. Ketcham. The town is prepared to substitute texting for calls at a moment’s notice, she added.

And, said Mr. Hartline, more residents have signed up at ct.alert.gov to receive emergency messages and updates from the town.

“We continue to encourage people to register their cell phone numbers,” Ms. Ketcham said.

Another change from the 2011 storms’ aftermath was the availability of a dedicated information line (a land line), said Ms. Ketcham.

This phone line was manned during the day and provided an outgoing message at night with information for the public. The availability of this phone line was heavily publicized.

Besides keeping the public informed, the use of the line freed Ms. Ketcham’s office for storm-related activities, she said.

“CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) continues to be a great asset to the town,” said Mr. Hartline, who runs the team. After Sandy, CERT members, as well as town hall employees, were called on to distribute commodities to the public. Both groups answered the phones in Sandy’s aftermath, he said.

The Redding Community Center, not town hall, became the distribution center for water and Meals Ready to Eat. In the middle of the week, when power had not yet been restored, the Connecticut Food Bank called and offered cases of cereal, canned goods, bananas, yogurt, and snack bars, nothing that required cooking, Mr. Hartline said.

In addition, those using the Community Center as a daytime shelter were provided with cooked soup, with whatever was in the refrigerator, he said.

As during the last two storms, the Community Center and town hall were used to charge electronics, and Wi-Fi, which was upgraded after the 2011 storms, was available.

Before Sandy, said Mr. Hartline, people had five days’ warning and could shop and prepare for being at home.

He is a proponent of people being prepared to shelter in place. “Residents are always more comfortable in their own homes,” he said.

To shelter in place, residents need to have emergency supplies. (A list is on the town’s website, townofreddingct.org, under “Quick Links.” Click on Emergency Services.) Mr. Hartline said he used to recommend having three days worth of food and supplies but has now amended it to a week. “That can be challenging — to store a week’s worth of water,” he said. He noted that bottled water is good for two years and the town has upgraded the hoses to have water available at the Community Center and Barlow.

Joel Barlow High School is the town’s designated emergency shelter. The decision on when to open the emergency shelter is often determined by what is happening at the Ridgefield and Bethel Red Cross shelters.

“We keep in touch with these shelters to get a sense of who is using them overnight and to see if there is a need for Redding to open its own shelter,” said Mr. Hartline.

Coming out of the Sandy aftermath assessment, said Ms. Ketcham, is the need for a shelter policy, which she has asked Mr. Hartline to prepare.

“A clear policy would be helpful to dictate when the town opens a shelter,” she said.

“Natalie and I visited the Ridgefield shelter (at the town’s recreation center) and were impressed by it,” said Mr. Hartline. Ridgefield is a model to review, he said, because the style of the building for a shelter works well compared to other sites. The center is a transformed school and has a gym, a pool and separate rooms where kids can play, for instance. Ridgefield is using regional funds to upgrade the kitchen at this shelter so it can prepare food in a sheltering situation, he said.

Redding’s approach is for residents to use the shelters in Ridgefield and Bethel. In the event these shelters reach their capacity, then the local shelter would be opened, Mr. Hartline said.

“If we sense it’s a short-term event, we could use the Redding Community Center for sheltering,” said Mr. Hartline, but he cautioned there are no showers there.

A generator for the building is in the works, as is a new generator for the police station, with its current generator going to the recycling center. A third generator will be kept in reserve to use where needed. All three generators were recommended by the emergency management team after the 2011 storms.

With the installation of the generator, the Community Center could be used as a warming shelter, and Barlow would remain the emergency shelter because it has showers.

The town is also participating in a functional needs shelter for people who need oxygen, for example. “We have been improving the system to reach out to those with functional needs or seniors who need to be looked in on,” said Mr. Hartline.

Gail Schiron, the town’s human services director, has a system in place for contacting seniors. Also helping to call seniors  and to deliver water and Meals Ready to those who needed them were members of the town’s volunteer fire departments.

As for the functional needs shelter, Mr. Hartline said the region is the only one in the state to have one. Danbury Hospital and the Red Cross initially developed the shelter and the hospital continues to work on a plan for it, said Mr. Hartline. The shelter was originally an effort to reduce the number of people in the hospital’s emergency room by having a place for people who don’t need emergency room services but who need more care than a shelter can provide.

Mr. Hartline called the region’s functional shelter a model for other regions in the state to follow. Now, said Ms. Ketcham, the region is looking for a permanent home for the functional needs shelter, which has been located in several different places.

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