Hurricane Sandy has so far cost the Town of Wilton more than $135,000 in police, fire, EMS and DPW overtime, First Selectman William Brennan said during last Monday's Board of Selectmen meeting at Town Hall.
Brennan said Sandy was an "extremely massive storm" that "really lived up to its advanced reputation."
"It caused almost historic damage to the Town of Wilton," he said. "In one hour 50 percent of Wilton's power went out — and at the peak 83 percent of CL&P's customers in town were without power."
More than 122 roads in town were blocked during the storm, either due to fallen trees, downed wires or both, he said.
The town was fortunate, however, in that there were no injuries or deaths, he said. Wilton Center never lost power and, luckily, the storm didn't produce the heavy rains that had been originally forecast, thus sparing the town from the threat of flooding.
Brennan said the town was still in the process of getting precise estimates for the minor damage caused to town facilities — including the town hall, annex, firehouse, the high school field house and several of the school buildings.
"Insurance estimates are being obtained," he said, adding that the town has meticulously documented all the damage.
In addition the town is preparing to file a claim with FEMA for storm damage and related costs. He said he expects the town to get about 75% reimbursement — and added that Wilton had good success in recouping about $700,000 from the agency for damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene in September 2011 and freak fall snow storm Alfred in October 2011.
Having learned valuable lessons from those two storms, Brennan said Wilton was well prepared this time around.
"Fortunately we did a lot of advanced preparing — we had two drills and there was a lot of advance information from our public safety officials," he said, adding that the town started sending out Code Red messages warning residents to prepare three days before Sandy made landfall.
As a result residents "were overall better prepared [for Hurricane Sandy] than they were for the storms last year," he said.
However the town's Emergency Operations Center received more than 3,100 calls, of which 489 were 911 calls, "so we had a lot of activity in the EOC," Brennan said.
The EOC, which opened a day before the storm, stayed in operation for a total of ten days and was manned 16 hours per day by emergency responders and town employees from various departments.
Paul Milositz, the town's Emergency Management Director, said he spent a lot of time in the EOC during the storm — during which he became aware of the frustration that residents were experiencing due to a lack of information coming from CL&P regarding power restoration.
"Unfortunately we have no way of making that better during the storm... so now is the time to press CL&P to improve that communication process," he said.
Brennan said although CL&P "has made some operating improvements since the past two storms" — for example working more closely with the state DOT and the DPW to identify roads to be cleared in order to restore power more quickly — it still needs to improve communications, particularly with regard to providing power restoration estimates.
"It's really their job to communicate power restoration timetables," he said. "They were very slow in coming up with estimates for communities — and it was almost impossible to get estimates for individual streets."
"This is an area that several of my fellow first selectman and mayor colleagues feel needs dramatic improvement," Brennan said, adding that he plans to bring the topic up at an upcoming meeting of the South West Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA).
Brennan said although there was no problem communicating with the people in CL&P's storm center, the challenge was getting "useful information we could make decisions on." He said when CL&P doesn't provide power restoration updates, residents get anxious and sometimes take out their frustration on town employees.
"When people can't get any information from CL&P, they often ricochet into the town hall and beat everyone up," Brennan said. "I understand that, but CL&P really needs to be doing a better job, and I think they have the capability to do it."
"When residents come in and they're very upset and they've been out of power for five days, the town employees are weary from being beat up by demands and in some cases being treated gruffly," Brennan later added. "And it's not fair to them because they didn't create the storm — and it's not their job to restore the power."
"We can understand the frustration, but we also want people to understand that every employee in this town broke their back to do their job to respond to the best of their ability," Brennan said. "And I think we did pretty good considering the damage we received."
Milositz said although most residents kept their cool throughout the storm, "some ran out of patience along the way, and I appeal to them to please maintain your... because the people who work here at town hall are only giving out the information we have. We are not withholding information — we're giving you the straight story — and we cannot turn the electricity back on."
Milositz pointed out that the town's police, fire, EMS and DPW workers took huge risks when they went out into the storm to respond to calls or address safety issues. He said at about 7 p.m., "when the storm started to really come in," and as police, fire and DPW crews were out responding to emergencies, "a call came in that a firefighter in Easton had been killed when a tree fell on his fire truck." It was at that moment, he said, that the decision was made to pull all crews in until the peak of the storm had passed.
"We decided not to put our folks in harm's way — we could no longer sustain the effort," Milositz said, adding that it was the first time he had ever heard a radio call in Wilton telling the police and fire personnel to return because it was simply too dangerous.
Milositz said earlier in the evening there was an incident in which a fire truck became blocked on Dudley Road by two fallen trees, which DPW crews had to come and remove.
"It is a very hazardous and very difficult duty when a storm comes," Milositz said of the town's DPW and emergency crews. "These people put their lives in jeopardy for the people of the town, to make sure everything is running safely."
Milositz said it wasn't easy for DPW crews to get roads cleared quickly, as many of the trees that fell brought down wires with them.
"The difficulty with this storm was that every tree [that came down] had three miles of wires wrapped around it — and when the wires are entangled in the trees there's nothing we can do until a CL&P crew comes along and says those wires are not electrified," he said. "There's no sense in getting someone killed or injured for a tree that is in the middle of the road."
Both Milositz and Brennan predicted that additional storms of similar magnitude will be coming in the future, and urged residents to stay prepared.
Milositz pointed out that residents can get emergency alerts from the town on their cell phones, as well as via text message and/or email on their mobile devices, simply by signing up at the town's website. In addition residents with Web-enabled smartphones can get updates via Facebook and Twitter.
Brennan, however, pointed out that people can only get information as fast as the town gets it — and right now town officials have to "extract it" from CL&P, "which takes time..."
"Unless we get it from CL&P, we can't communicate it ... we can't write the message..." Brennan said, adding that this makes it challenging to generate meaningful updates for residents on a twice daily basis.
Meanwhile crews from the Wilton Department of Public Works continue to clean up debris from the storm.