One Year After Sandy, Is South Orange Better Prepared?
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 • 12:51pm
SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Superstorm Sandy revealed weaknesses in how the village communicates with its residents and with the power company, and officials say they’ve taken steps to correct those problems.
A year ago today, Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast with hurricane-force winds, and after the storm the village worked to respond to its residents who suffered from power outage and property damage.
Alex Torpey, village president and director of the Office of Emergency Management, said he thinks there is room for both improvement and changes in emergency coordination.
The South Orange Office of Emergency Management helps to coordinate all of the resources within the village, including with partners such as Seton Hall, as well as coordinating information flow, situational awareness, resources and assets, and operations in other towns and the county, Torpey said.
“As a local government, our planning and response was very good,” Torpey said. “We can always do better and are almost ready to roll out a new emergency notification system and have created some other contingency plans in the after action reviews.”
Torpey said the Office of Emergency Management has held several after action meetings to address concerns with utility companies, Essex County, other towns and the federal government.
“The (OEM) report basically got split into smaller pieces addressed at targeting specific problems,” Torpey said, “for example, getting a new emergency notification system, working with the utilities to improve their infrastructure, etcetera.”
Village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr. agreed that the storm emphasized the importance of communication and the need to have many available channels of communication.
“With power outages, the ability to communicate with people is a major difficulty,” Lewis said. “During the storm, we had to resort to distributing messages through neighborhood associations via printed up fliers in order to communicate with the town.”
The South Orange Police Department’s equipment continued to work during Sandy. “We were fortunate not to be affected by communications issues,” police Chief Jim Chelel said.
In addition, Lewis said that they are working on ways to stay in communication with Public Service Electric & Gas regarding outages.
During Sandy, millions of electric customers of PSE&G lost power due to damaged equipment and trees that took power lines down.
“We have filed a $3.9 billion infrastructure program called Energy Strong that is now under review by the Board of Public Utilities in response to Sandy,” PSE&G’s Media Relations spokeswoman Kristine Lloyd said.
Lloyd said PSE&G also is concentrating on communication between itself and residents in response to comments from customers about wanting to hear from them more often during a storm.
“We launched MyAlerts, a system that alerts customers by text and emails when there’s an outage in their area and when service has been restored, giving customers the opportunity to two-way text and report outages this way,” Lloyd said.
Customers will have access to localized outage information online, as well as new mobile web technology that can be accessed from any smartphone, Lloyd said.
Lewis said that a major problem for South Orange is that its power lines are in backyards, making repairs difficult and time-intensive.
In terms of public safety, Chelel said that there was one burglary during Sandy but that’s it.
“Any time you have a situation like this, you're going to have concerns about looting and burglaries, so we just had to step up our vigilance and keep an eye out,” Chelel said.
Police also were involved in assisting people who needed shelter. Lewis and Torpey both agree that there is a need for an emergency shelter in South Orange.
The village’s two shelters during the storm, the library and the Baird center, both faced challenges, Lewis said.
Lewis said that the Baird is in a flood plain and does not have emergency backup power. Although the library also does not have emergency backup power, it did not lose power.
During Sandy, the library had to be used for both shelter and common use such charging electronics and serving as a warming station.