Arguably the most devastating natural disaster in Washington Township’s history, Super Storm Sandy wiped out electricity to 96-percent of the municipality, with some residents living in dark homes for two full weeks.
Municipal offices were shut for a full week and schools were closed for twice that amount of time. Public officials couldn’t get on the same page as electricity provider Jersey Central Power & Light, and trees blocked roadways for days on end, despite locals’ best efforts to remove them.
Nearly a month after Sandy swept through town, Mayor Ken Short gathered all municipal department leaders in a closed meeting at the Washington Township Municipal Building Tuesday to go over, essentially, what worked and what didn’t during the storm and in its aftermath.
While the police department, department of public works, fire department, office of emergency management and various other municipal groups had different responsibilities during the storm, they all agreed that one thing went very wrong: Communication.
Scott Frech, superintendent of the DPW kicked off the meeting by commending his workers for the relentless work they put in clearing roads of debris in the storm’s aftermath, but said his biggest issue was communicating with the county dispatch system.
“My guys did a super job,” Frech said. “Aside from the police, we were the first on a scene just about everywhere trying to clear roadways. We did a lot of [JCP&L’s] work for them. But the biggest problem was trying to communicate with the county dispatch system–it was basically nonexistent. If I can’t get through to them, their basically worthless.”
In order for Frech to give any information he may have to police or fire departments while out on the road, he was required to send it through the county dispatch system, which was overloaded, according to police Chief Michael Bailey.
Bailey agreed communications were problematic at the county level. The dispatch center brought in additional worker prior to the storm, Bailey said, but the entire system went down at one point, making it useless.
On the fire department side of operations, Charlie Davidson and Rick Welch echoed the sentiments of Frech and Bailey, saying communication with the county was nonexistent as well.
“When communication was up here,” Welch said of the former local dispatch center, “you couldn’t ask for better communication.”
Department heads like Frech and Bailey were reduced to communicating with each other via cell phone, but service was interrupted during the storm.
“I actually had to physically appear at the police station to give the guys updates and explain what was going on,” Frech said. “I was bothered it had come to that point. If Mike (Bailey) and Jimmy (Smith) weren’t manning the local communication center, we’d have nothing.”
‘Probably Going to Happen Again’
Pointing to the phenomena that three major, power-crushing storms have hit Washington Township during the month of October over the last five years, Short was quick to predict it’s likely a natural disaster of large magnitude would happen again in the future.
That being said, the group discussed the possibility of relying more on older forms of communication, including sign boards and neighborhood leaders who can notify other residents by word of mouth.
While Short and Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Smith were applauded for their communication with the media, it was made aware by other members that many residents did not have access to the Internet or radio to receive updates.
“I think we, as a municipality, did a great job communicating,” said Board of Health Director Chris Cooke-Gibbs. “There was a sense of effort to communicate with the public what we did know, but we need to work on making contact with our elders in the community who are shut in during these times.”
As for communicating with the powers that be controlling the town’s electricity, the group was well aware of the struggles officials faced.
Short reiterated what he said at a recent committee meeting, that information from JCP&L was either lacking or inaccurate most of the time.
It wasn’t until the final weekend of the outages that officials were able to properly communicate with Duke Energy, the crew working on restoring power to the area, in person. Before then, interaction with workers was hit or miss at best.
“Half the time (line crews) didn’t know where they were going,” said Bailey. “The other half of the time the would fix a little problem, and then take off. We couldn’t figure out what they were doing.”
A representative should be at the municipality’s command center during a crisis like this, directing workers what to do, according to Davidson. Whether the company is willing to do that or not remains to be seen.
While approaches on how to make communications better during crises in the future may differ, there’s one topic that everyone can agree on.
Sandy, and her wrath, won’t soon be forgotten.