Sandy's lessons: Fairfielders' spirit strong, feds' regs frustrating
Updated 9:49 am, Friday, October 4, 2013
Katie Boland, who grew up in Fairfield, said one lesson she learned from Superstorm Sandy is that her hometown has not changed.
Boland, who solicited volunteers through social media to help dig out and clean up Fairfield Beach in the wake of the powerful storm, recalled Thursday night that more than 1,000 people showed up for the Nov. 11 cleanup -- about 950 more than she initially expected. "It reaffirmed the town of Fairfield I grew up in. It's a beautiful community," she said.
Boland was one of three panelists at "Hurricane Sandy: Lessons Learned," a forum sponsored by Fairfield University's Master of Public Administration Program and held at the Fairfield University Bookstore.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau, another panelist, shared Boland's sentiment, saying the town's police officers, firefighters and Department of Public Works crews immediately headed out in the height of the storm to help people trapped in cars after trees toppled onto them. "We just pulled police, fire and DPW guys off the roads and we have cars with trees and wires on them in some cases, and people in the cars," he said.
Tetreau said the first surprise for him was that people were driving around at the height of the storm and the next was how quickly town personnel set out to help them. "There wasn't a question. There wasn't a request. It just happened," he said. "I was tremendously impressed with the dedication of public service workers and what they did in the face of the storm."
Tetreau added that the Southport and Stratfield volunteer fire departments assisted in evacuating people from 5,000 homes before the storm hit. He said the town also set up a special fund for residents who wanted to help affected homeowners and that the fund amassed "well over $200,000."
But Tetreau said residents whose homes had suffered damage in the storm were stymied by how complicated it has proven to find resources and learn about regulations that govern the rebuilding of their homes. "It's basically as confusing as you can get," he said. "There's no one space, no one website to go to find out where the buckets of money are, and each has different restrictions and requirements."
"There is no one answer person or answer site that deals with this," he said.
Tetreau said insurance that residents had on their homes from the National Flood Insurance Program prior to Sandy didn't cover the cost of repairs or reconstruction because the payment wasn't indexed to the cost of living in a specific area. He added that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is allotting $30,000 to elevate a home, but the average cost in Fairfield for that work ranges from $80,000 to $100,000. "That $30,000 may work in Louisiana. It doesn't work in Fairfield County," he said, adding that the federal government's "one size fits all approach" didn't work.
Tetreau said some homes in the town's Fairfield Beach neighborhood are still marked for demolition because residents haven't figured out where to get "gap financing" -- the money that exceeds what insurance and FEMA will pay -- and that Fairfield Beach was "still a very active construction zone."
"The financial crisis is the gap financing. What happens next? Where do you get that money?" Tetreau asked. He said he wasn't aware of a supplemental program for flood insurance and that nearly 1,000 homes in the Fairfield Beach area had been damaged by flooding.
Robert Kenny, the third panelist and a regional coordinator at the state's Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said he couldn't disagree with Tetreau's criticism of the complexity involved with getting help. "It's a very daunting and challenging task to navigate the multiple buckets of money that become available," he said.
Tetreau said the town also found itself unable to obtain FEMA money to replenish its beaches because the beaches are not "engineered." Tetreau said he didn't intend any disrespect to FEMA employees, many of whom came to Fairfield after Sandy to answer residents' questions at forums, but he believes the agency's regulations don't make sense. "It's not the people. It's the process that is broken. The FEMA process doesn't work," he said.
Brian Russell, one of several people in the audience, said he found the permitting process in Fairfield to be difficult, but Tetreau said the town's workforce in its Building and Zoning departments is lean and not staffed to process the volume of permits and conduct inspections after a devastating storm. "We couldn't bring people in from surrounding communities because they're all going through the same situation," he said.
Tetreau, though, said the town is exploring how technology could make the process easier.
Kenny said the aftermath of Sandy led the state to improve a website that shares information with all 169 towns and cities in the state and non-profits like the Salvation Army and Red Cross. Kenny and Tetreau said pre-storm conference calls with Gov. Dannel Malloy and leaders in all of the municipalities were helpful, but Kenny said the website would reduce the need for voice communications.
Kenny said the state also was working to more quickly restore power after a storm. He said the first priority is to coordinate power companies and local DPWs to clear fallen trees tangled in power lines from roads so emergency vehicles could travel on them. The next priority, he said, was restoring power. A lot of utility poles are owned by telecommunication companies, and, in the past, power companies had to wait for the poles to be replaced. But now, power companies will replace the pole and work out issues with the telecommunications companies later, Kenny said. He said telecommunications representatives are now "embedded" in command centers of power companies during emergencies.
Kenny said the idea of burying utility lines wouldn't work because of prohibitive costs. "You're talking about an expense that is insurmountable," he said.
Kenny said microgrids also would lessen the impact of power outages.
But Kenny said people are realizing they can't rely on government at any level to respond "in a moment's notice" during a disaster.
Boland said she didn't encounter the hurdles faced by the town and residents during the post-Sandy cleanup because Tetreau and Police Lt. Michael Gagner cleared their path. "Lieutenant Mike cut through every bit of red tape there might ever be," she said.
Boland said some volunteers shoveled sand from the yards of Fairfield Beach homes while others, at homes farther from the beach, carried damaged furniture from basements and raked and bagged leaves. She said Home Depot donated garbage bags and rakes while area restaurants donated food and bottled water. "There was just a tremendous outpouring of love," she said. "One of the lessons I took from this was give people a chance, they'll help."
Russell said Boland, who was assisted in her organizing effort by childhood friends Lindsey Morton of Fairfield and Kelly Kniznansky of Norwalk, did a great job. He said people want to help after a disaster but it's necessary to have a leader to organize the effort.
After the forum, Boland said, "We had a plan. We had 70 places we had to send people to, and it kind of all magically worked that morning."
"By 10 a.m., all volunteers were at their locations," she said.