NEWTON, NJ – One of the topics at the Sussex County Freeholders Meeting on Wednesday was Sussex County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC), which could be likened to the Pentagon’s “War Room." It brought together into one location all the necessary personnel and equipment, to help Sussex County residents battle the ravages of Hurricane Sandy.
Members of the Sheriff’s Department, the Road Department, Human Services (which provided counseling at the shelters), the Health Department (with public health nursing teams who could advise on any health issues including water and food), and the webmaster Thor Carlson, worked 24/7 for the first week of the storm, in the old Juvenile Detention Center behind the Main Branch of the Sussex County Library.
The center is outfitted with long tables with banks of computers, TV’s for input from the outside world, ham radio operators, and a conference room. The Spillman Program is software, currently used by 10 municipalities in the county, which allows all police departments to share data of 911 calls. As soon as a call came in about trees or wires down, the EOC could absorb it and respond, across the disciplines.
Sussex County Administrator John Eskilson said, “The preparation and collaboration was top notch. Since all the necessary people were in one place, we could access information and get the word out in real time.”
He also said he realized that each of those people had families out there, but in the room, “they never lost focus on serving the public.”
George Graham, Stanhope Councilman reported to the Freeholders that Hurricane Sandy did great damage to the southern part of the county, particularly Hopatcong, Stanhope, Byram, and Andover. “At this point, there are still 200 people in the shelter at the Hopatcong High School. The high winds came over the lake and picked up velocity, knocked down hundreds of trees and telephone poles. The people in that area lost power for the past 10 days, and now it’s getting cold out there. Tonight, as the snow is falling, we have people in their houses below fifty degrees.”
Graham reported that Red Cross came in with volunteers from as far away as Idaho, Montana, and the Carolinas, and did a magnificent job. They handled the resident end of things, and he and other volunteers handled the meals. He said he saw a convoy of "40-50 work trucks coming in from Georgia to help,” and he thanked elected officials and volunteers who came in to help, especially Mayor Sylvia Petillo, who worked tirelessly throughout the duration of the storm.
Graham then explained how the communication flowing from JCP&L has created hardships for the residents. They have been releasing numbers day by day of how many residents in the towns can expect to have power back, but without knowing where they are working, people do not have the information to make good decisions. Freeholder Parker Space agreed, and said, “If people think their power is coming back in a few hours, they will tend to stick it out, if they knew it would be so long, they may have made other plans.”
Freeholder Director Phillip Crabb said, “The numbers alone don’t help.”
Freeholder Richard Vohden spoke up to underscore the enormity of the problem, as this storm was historic in proportion. He felt people had to understand the time it takes to cut and remove trees.
Graham said he was not there to criticize their work; his purpose was to ask JCP&L to give better communication so people can make better decisions, since this is the third time in four years that people have been out of power for more than a week. He said he wants to have the Board revisit the Office of Emergency Management plan to resolve the missing information. Graham plans to take this up with the League of Municipalities as well.
Graham brought to the Freeholder’s attention how hard Petillo has worked for the people of Hopatcong. "She goes out early in the morning to the OEM, visits people at their homes, works at the shelter feeding people, and then, helps clean up.”
Eskilson added that she worked hard “before, during and after the storm. She is one of the finest public servants I know.”
Eskilson then praised the Municipal road crews, and said he saw one town official out helping with his own saw, clearing the trees. He said having the updated website was an important tool for people in the county. Since the webmaster was at the Emergency Operations Center, he updated the website regarding road closings as soon as the information came in. Crabb added that they also sent out messages through Twitter and Facebook directing people to the website. He congratulated the Sheriff’s Department for their foresight in building and operating the center. Eskilson added that “It is a privilege working with these people.”
Water remains available, housed at Sussex County Community College, which is available to municipalities upon request.
In other business:
- Sussex County joined in a worldwide effort to spread awareness, by proclaiming November 10, 2012 as “Worldwide NET Cancer Awareness Day.”
- Hap Rowan, Sales and Marketing Director for CP Engineers, LLC, Sparta, was present to receive a proclamation, along with his family. NET stands for Neuroendocrine Tumors, and Hap has been battling them for four years, however, probably went for as long as seven years misdiagnosed, according to his wife, Mary. The symbol for this disease is a zebra-striped ribbon, encouraging doctors and patients “if you think it’s a horse, think zebra,” as a way to think “outside the box” if treatment isn’t helping. NET’s symptoms are similar to other diseases. Rowan thanked the Freeholders, and encouraged all citizens to learn the symptoms, in order to hasten treatment. There will be a concert at the Newton Theatre Saturday night to celebrate the day and promote awareness.
- Diana Duke, manager of the Sussex County Adult Day Center, reported that she received a letter from Catholic Family Community Services that due to big deficits in their budget, the Day Center will be closing down as of December 31, 2012. She said staff are shocked and are coming to the Freeholders to report that the services are still going to be needed, as there are no other programs in Sussex County to serve adults with Alzheimer’s disease. The staff is alarmed, and still ready to continue working, if they can find the funding to continue. At present there are about 35 families using the center, which will be negatively impacted, forcing people to quit jobs to take care of family members, or worse, people may have to go into nursing homes. CFCS reported that due to Peer Group Funding Cuts, they do not have the money to continue the program. Crabb said they would take this under advisement, and thanked her for letting them know.
- The closing date for selling the Homestead Nursing Home has been extended to November 30, 2012.
- The meeting was adjourned, after reminding the public that the office would be closed Monday, November 12 for Veteran’s Day, and Thursday and Friday, November 22 and 23 for Thanksgiving. The next regular meeting is Wednesday, November 28, and there will be a Six County Coalition Meeting on December 5.