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New DPW director gets a stormy welcome to town

Updated 12:56 pm, Wednesday, November 21, 2012

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  • New Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo certainly got his feet wet when Sandy hit town. Fairfield, CT 11/19/12 Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    New Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo certainly got his feet wet when Sandy hit town. Fairfield, CT 11/19/12 Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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There really wasn't much of a chance for Joseph Michelangelo to ease into his new job as Fairfield's public works director.

Michelangelo came from Cheshire on Sept. 6 to take over for Richard White, who retired from the post after nearly two decades. About a month and half into his new gig, the storm of the relatively young century blew into town.

If not a baptism by fire, then it was surely one by water and wind.

Instead of a series of critical decisions made over the course of months or a year, Superstorm Sandy forced officials to act in a tight, compressed time frame, Michelangelo said. At the town's Emergency Operations Center, "We had meetings every four hours," he said. "It was meetings every four hours that saw the landscape change."

It was, Michelangelo said, a challenge, but unlike normal operating conditions, instead of having a few days to consider a situation, "we had minutes to strategize."

To the town's credit, he said, much a like sports team's bench, the Department of Public Works has a lot of depth.

The highway department, Michelangelo said, has about 73 employees. "If you had to rank them from one to 73, you'd have good numbers all the way down. In Cheshire I had about a third that were on top, a third on the bottom and a third that could go either way. But here -- there are guys here that have good abilities. Even if you picked the tenth guy, he could probably run a highway department in another town."

From DPW Superintendent Scott Bartlett, who had the wherewithal to rent about half a dozen very large pumps, to the crews who showed up hours before their shift eager to get started, to the office workers who staffed the phones throughout Sandy and for days afterward, Michelangelo said the department showed its true colors.

"They knew the challenges in front of them" he said. "Our guys were chomping at the bit. Our day starts at 7 a.m., we had guys show up at 5:30, raring to go and ready to tackle the storm."

Michelangelo said the workers all knew there was a long stretch of work ahead of them -- complicated by a nor'easter that dumped about 6 inches of snow while Sandy cleanup operations were still ongoing.

But they knew that once they finished that stretch of 11 straight days, they'd have Nov. 11 and 12 off. "They had a defined task, and a schedule," he said.

For the snowy nor'easter, crews went home at 3:30 in the afternoon in order to return and work through the night. "Switching gears during that storm was the toughest," Michelangelo said, and it took its toll.

"November 8, that's when everybody kind of crashed, so to speak," he said. "That was certainly one of the low points, but they basically knew that had to make it through Friday and Saturday and they knew they had two days off. They were dead tired, but they could see the light at the end of the tunnel."

As he prepared to take part in a debriefing on the storm and the town's response with other department heads, Michelangelo said there is one thing he would've done differently.

When Green Cycle, the recycling center, and the town's transfer station reopened by the weekend after Sandy, he said, there was a steady stream of people bringing in brush and tree limbs that had come down during the storm, as well as storm-damaged furnishings. On Nov. 5, the decision was made to waive the dump fee. "In hindsight, we probably should have done that immediately, and (added) the extended hours, too," he said. "We probably should have reacted quicker, and should have done that on day one."

greilly@ctpost.com; 203-556-2771; http://twitter.com/GreillyPost