FAIR HAVEN RATES STORM COMMUNICATIONS

A hard hat signed by Alabama Power line workers was donated to Fair Haven as thanks for the town’s hospitality at Tuesday night’s council meeting. (Photo by Wil Fulton. Click to enlarge)

By WIL FULTON

In a meeting predictably dominated by issues related to Hurricane Sandy, Fair Haven’s borough council and a concerned public agreed on Monday night: though the local government did well, better communication is needed.

Council members and residents said the town’s officials did a good job of damage control and post-storm recovery efforts, but a lack of effective communications from the borough was the one lingering negative at the governing body’s bimonthly meeting.

“I think the main thing is we need to do a better job communicating,” said borough AdministratorTheresa Casagrande.

While borough officials spearheaded an informational campaign featuring emails, text alerts, automated phone calls and other means of communicating, even the council admitted that the information gap between themselves and the general public was at times, strained.

Complaints sprang up from the public over issues such as extended power outages at borough hall, a confusing interface on the borough website, false reports on when power would be restored, and a technology gap affecting senior citizens without smartphones or laptops.

Though council members acknowledged the problems in infrastructure and said they intend to work on them, some of them were out of their hands, they said.

“One of the things that really set us back was the contamination of our [fiber-optic phone and data] T1 line, plus there were problems with the online and digital information itself, at times,” Casagrande said. When a vault containing the T1 line that connects borough hall and the police station was compromised, borough hall lost all means of communications, they said.

Also, the town hall itself was without power for a stretch of eight days before a generator and sufficient fuel could be secured and put in place, officials said.

This added to the mounting list of communications problems, and forced some officials, including Casagrande, to rely on outdated Blackberries and similar devices in order to get news out to the public, she said.

Officials said they also faced recurring difficulties regarding information and services provided by JCP&L, which isn’t exactly a new problem for Fair Haven.

“I don’t know if there is any comparison – this was a cataclysmic event,” Casagrande said, when asked how JCP&L’s performance stacked up against past efforts. “But it was very frustrating at times. Our residents can’t get accurate information about power restoration if we don’t have it ourselves.”

One measure likely to be implemented is the installation of a permanent emergency generator at borough hall, similar to the one currently at the police station, officials said. With emergency fuel reserves set in place, this should prevent another extended blackout, they said.

Some members of the public clamored for a more traditional alert system, such as a car or truck equipped with megaphones in order to inform seniors who don’t have internet or cellphones.

Police Chief Darryl Breckenridge said that throughout the storm, police officers personally checked in on each senior citizen known to be living alone, making sure that their situation was under control during the storm and subsequent blackout and even delivering hot meals and news to them individually.

Overall, the handling of the storm and its aftermath were recognized as efficient on almost all ends. The borough managed to not only serve it’s own community with shelter, branch and tree removal services, but also aided in several neighboring town’s recovery efforts, officials said.

In addition, Fair Haven provided Rumson and Sea Bright with additional police and fire personnel, and hosted Sea Bright’s election-day polling stations at the firehouse, they noted. Volunteers, including borough Clerk Alyson M. Cinquegrana, also helped organize a clothing drive with FEMA for the ailing beach community, and set up comfort stations for Sea Bright, as well as Fair Haven, residents in the youth center.

The council recognized Casagrande’s efforts in particular, with Mayor Ben Lucarelli calling her “solid as a rock” as the council gave her a brief standing ovation

Also recognized were volunteer efforts to provide Alabama Power workers who came to area with hot meals during and in-between shifts. While homeowners with disconnected power lines were told by JCP&L that they would have to handle repairs themselves with commercial electricians, the Alabama line workers took matters into their own hands, repairing almost all disconnected heads as part of their extensive service, residents and officials said.

Many local kids began making cards and crafts as thank-yous to the workers, who in return presented the borough with an autographed hard hat, signed by Alabama Power workers who were on hand throughout the recovery process. The helmet was displayed throughout the meeting.

Council members assured the audience that they would learn from the experience in an effort to be better prepared if, and when, a “once in a generation storm” like Sandy comes around again.

“This is the fourth ‘100-year storm’ we’ve had in the past 20 years.” joked Lucarelli. “So we need to be prepared for the next one.”