SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – A major portion of the Scotch Plains Council Meeting on Tuesday evening was taken up by questions and discussion regarding how the Town had operated during Hurricane Sandy and what was the state of cleanup after the more horrific storm in living memory.
Mayor Mary DePaola apologized that several questions that had been held over from the last Council meeting and had not been answered. “When you lose power in Town Hall for eleven days, it tends to put you behind.”
Mayor DePaola went on to explain that a Town Hall Meeting would be held in the next few weeks with representative from PSE&G to explain what is being done to prevent the issues that happed during the hurricane.
“With no power at town hall, many homes had no power or internet, this made communication very hard!” said Mayor DePaola.
A resident suggested having an e-mail account where residents “could send suggestions on how to improve communication during a crisis in the future.”
There was then a round of applause for everyone who worked for the town and put in many hours above and beyond the call of duty.
Resident Frank Festa stepped to the mike to ask questions regarding the change in the Office of Emergency Management, asking the Mayor if the fact that a State of emergency was declared meant the OEM was in charge, and what was currently in the emergency room in the basement?
The Mayor diplomatically sidestepped any specific comment on the change of OEM Coordinator and deferred to the new OEM, Police Chief Brian Mahoney to answer specific questions.
“We all learned a lot of things from this storm that brought things that we had never seen before. Shelters we were counting on could not be used due to lack of power, and we are grateful to Evangel Church for opening up their doors, and offering overnight shelter,” said Chief Mahoney.
In answer to the question “How many generators did the town have,” the Chief replied: “Our municipality has four gas powered generators and we were able to secure 3 mobile generators from the country to use to power traffic lights.”
Resident Kimberly Nix stepped up to the mike express her disappointment with the Council. “I felt like no one was here the first week and I don’t feel like I’m welcome in my own town. I came here to charge my phone and everyone was told to leave at 5 pm and there was no other place to go! I felt like I was in a nightmare. I felt disappointment with my Council.”
The Mayor agreed that “we need to get united as a town. It’s a difficult balance to be an official, we are the point people for 26,000 people and 7000 homes funneled down to the five of us when on a personal level we were out of power for 14 days, which made it difficult to keep communications up.”
Deputy Mayor Bo Vastine then responded with a quick description of things he did during the storm, including being in line for 3 hours for gas for generators, while dealing with two small children and elderly mother at home with no heat. “As much as we understand your point of view, we were experiencing it right along with you. We also felt isolated and frustrated.”
Further responses from the Council outlined how they felt they were not “absolved from any mistakes” but they “appreciated” the position of the residents, yet wanted everyone to keep in mind that there was no loss of life or major property destruction like in South Jersey.
“We all feel a sense of responsibility,” said Councilman Marcus. “I’m proud of the efforts of my fellow council members, proud of how the staff of the town performed. It was a horrific event and I can assure you that we take what you say very seriously and we are going to collectively see how we can improve our response in the future.”
The next resident had much to say about how the Seniors were “completely in the dark, and something has to be done!”
Chief Mahoney agreed that it was imperative to find a way to communicate with no power. “It’s difficult when the e-mail server is not hooked up to a generator. We need boots on the ground. We did an effort to post flyers around town, but it was not enough. Fanwood did a good job of this, but they have one square mile to our 10 square miles. However, we need to find a way to reach everyone in town.”
The final resident comment was from George G. “As an elected official, there is an assumption of duty. I’m embarrassed by the four separate rebuttals to the questions here. It’s not like you don’t know it was coming. Preparedness is the key.”
The City Manager then went on with the business portion of the meeting, outlining how the town had dealt with the practical aspects of getting the town back to normal, such as dealing with over 10,000 cubic yards of debris.
Councilman Saridaki then called for donations to the Food Pantry, who are “in dire need of supplies for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The Mayor’s Gala has been cancelled for this year. “ In the wake of the storm it would be very difficult to ask business to donate and ask people to attend a charity function in the aftermath of the storm and our honorees deserve a better event, and they will be honored next year,” concluded Mayor DePaola.