By Alex Torpey, South Orange Village President & OEM Coordinator
Superstorm Sandy was one of the worst storms ever to hit the state of New Jersey. However, despite its seeming rarity, it will not be the last, as weather events seem to be trending towards the more extremes.
As a result, a unique opportunity exists to collectively and comprehensively assess what happened and to make improvements and recommendations before the next major storms hits.
Although from the feedback we've received, the response and communication from the Village itself was generally very good, we can, of course, always do better. And it is critical to remember that, for an event this large, the Village’s response is significantly impacted by the response of others, for example PSE&G and NJ Transit.
It seems important for us to re-adjust our expectations of what we can realistically expect from these outside agencies, both in performance and communication, and modify our plans accordingly.
Obtaining input and feedback from the community about those aspects of the response, although admittedly out of local government control, can assist us in pursuing and facilitating changes at the state-wide level.
Currently, the Office of Emergency Management is conducting this process internally among the staff involved with the Village’s day-to-day emergency operations during the storm through a working group referred to as the Local Emergency Planning Council.
This internal review is an ongoing process that I anticipate will continue to be updated as we get new information, such as debris cleanup numbers or FEMA reimbursement information.
After discussing this at the Nov. 12 meeting of the Board of Trustees meeting, we agreed to take this post-mortem a step further by engaging all of our community stakeholders over the next few weeks. This process will be twofold: First, an online survey will be made available on the Village website, www.southorange.org.
Second, I have asked the Chair of our Citizens Public Safety Committee to help facilitate informal meetings with neighborhood associations to gather feedback and answer questions.
For example, one of the most common complaints I heard was that specific areas in town that always lose power at the slightest inclement weather. If we can help gather that information and get it to PSE&G, perhaps we can help them find a solution in the way of infrastructure or other improvements.
On the local side, if there are areas where people didn't have critical information during the storm, we can make sure people are signed up for our emergency notifications (and are aware of programs to get further involved, like the Community Emergency Response Team) and look to improve and expand the outlets and methods by which we communicate with the public, using both new technology like social media, as well as offline methods.
Lastly, I will continue to work with my colleagues on the Board of Trustees and directly with our state representatives in the 27th District to identify policies, both local and statewide, which will help strengthen our response to emergency situations. Most recently, I brought a resolution to the Board, which passed unanimously, calling for an investigation into how PSE&G manages information, communicates, prepares for and responds to extreme power outages. The resolution further asks the New Jersey Legislature to compel PSE&G, and all public utility companies, through legislative action to adopt the recommendations resulting from this investigation. Items such as this and others will continue to be considered. Moreover, to strengthen those efforts, I have been speaking with other local governments to build a broad, statewide coalition to pursue these state-wide changes.
On a very personal level, while Hurricane Sandy presented unprecedented challenges, and I've had no shortages of extreme weather events in my term so far, I’ve never felt more proud to be a part of this community. From everyone here at the Village to community volunteers to businesses and residents who opened their stores and homes - the response, not just by the Village, but by all of us, was a high point for our town. It was both inspiring and humbling to see the spirit of our community so truly represented. It's one of the (many) reasons why I'm so proud to call South Orange my hometown.
While we continue to fine-tune this process, please feel free to submit comments, suggestions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep up to date at www.southorange.org for the latest information. If you aren’t signed up for emergency notifications, please do so at www.southorange.org/alerts and follow us on Twitter @SouthOrangeNJ.