A week after Hurricane Sandy and Summit, NJ is still struggling to get back to normal. Immediately after the storm, 90 percent of our people were without power. A week later, 40 percent of the city is still without power. We are lucky. We are not a shore community that was washed away. We still have power in 60 percent of the city and we have an infrastructure that is providing some measure of safety and survivability. We are fortunate that the current power outage occurred in October and not December or January. Only a few months from now and people who are uncomfortable in their homes could be freezing.
The people of Summit have done a magnificent job accommodating to this storm. Churches, civic organizations, restaurants and grocery stores have all chipped in to feed and house people. The Calvary Church has provided three meals a day to anyone who shows up for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
However, our Office of Emergency Management has not been up to the challenge. They have not prepared well for a prolonged power outage. Our city shelter is in the Middle School. There are cots for sleeping during the night, there are snacks and coffee during the day but there are no hot meals. The large area in which people are housed is not conducive to relaxation and calming of nerves. Most people are polite and cooperative but a couple of hundred people in a cavernous space creates a loud and constant level of noise. As other public buildings have power restored they are being opened as warming and recharging stations.
Many of the local people can sleep in their homes but need a quiet place to warm up during the day. Many people have all-electric kitchens and cannot cook for themselves. Many people are on fixed incomes and can’t afford to eat every meal at a restaurant for a week or more. What about the people in the middle school who are old, indigent, with very young children or just out of gas for their cars? How do they get from the school to the church where meals are provided?
Meals are unavailable at the Middle School. Hot meals are available at the Calvary Episcopal Church, which is about a half mile from the Middle School shelter. The people at Calvary have done a magnificent job. The food is plentiful and delicious. People have come from as far away as Maplewood and Basking Ridge for a hot meal. No one is turned away. It is normal to see homeless people and wealthy Summit residents sitting side-by-side at the same table and the volunteers make everyone feel as if they were guests in their homes. But after a week, the preparers and servers are getting tired. The church, and its parishioners, are supplying the funds to buy the food and receiving donations from local restaurants and supermarkets. But there is no regularity or predictability to their supply. They don’t know how many people will show up to eat and they have no regular source of supply. But they soldier on!
I was told that Meals on Wheels is checking on its elderly clients to make sure they have sufficient heat. However, lots of elderly people are not Meals on Wheels clients. Who is checking on them? What about other shut-ins, single parents with young children and people who are just too proud to actively seek help?
President Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II said “planning is everything, plans are nothing.” He knew that plans often have to be altered during an emergency but to fail to plan for such an emergency is a prescription for disaster. Summit, and presumably other localities in this area, have failed to prepare for such a disaster and are relying on ad-hoc volunteerism. After Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011, I would have expected a better response from a city that prides itself on excellent management.
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Henry Bassman has written about high-technology and medical technology (biotechnology, medical devices and healthcare issues) for more than 40 years. He retired from AT&T, served in the U.S. Army where he became a captain and worked for ABC News. He is now affiliated with a small investment bank. Articles by Henry can be seen on ABCNews.com and other business Web sites. Henry has lived in Summit, NJ for 37 years and has been married for more than 40 years. He has three daughters who graduated from Summit High School.
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