Manager Applauds Borough's Sandy Response
All five of Fair Lawn's council members stayed abreast of the borough's emergency operations and played active roles in town during Superstorm Sandy.
Borough manager Tom Metzler has been in the public eye long enough to know that no matter how Fair Lawn handled its brush with Superstorm Sandy, some residents would inevitably find fault.
“If you ask the public, I think one-third are going to tell you we did a great job, one-third are going to tell you we did a terrible job and one-third aren’t going to care one way or the other,” he said, reciting one of his choice axioms about government. “That’s just the way it is.”
Metzler said he was very pleased with the way borough personnel, both paid and volunteer, performed during the storm and in its immediate aftermath.
“I think they offered the best service that we’re capable of producing and giving,” he said, citing his satisfaction with the open line of communication the borough attempted to maintain with the public via phone, website and social media updates throughout the emergency. “I don’t think there’s a whole heck of a lot we could have done differently.”
While some residents have criticized the mayor and council for what they felt was a lack of involvement following the storm, Metzler said the criticisms were unwarranted.
The mayor and council may not have been delivering the daily emergency phone messages – the recorded drone residents heard each day was assistant borough manager Jim Van Kruiningen – but they were in frequent contact with the town for the duration of the emergency, Metzler said.
“We hire professionals to manage emergencies, hence the term ‘Emergency Manager,’” he said, noting that the mayor and council made all resources available to the borough’s department heads, but stopped short of micromanaging the disaster response. “Certain things they’re able to do and certain things they’re unable to do.”
Mayor Jeanne Baratta and Deputy Mayor Ed Trawinski, both of whom lost power at their own homes for an extended period of time after the storm, played vital roles coordinating emergency operations at the county level, which allowed them to stay in near-constant communication with officials in Fair Lawn.
“It was a very fast-paced week,” said Baratta, the chief of staff for County Executive Kathleen Donovan. “I worked around the clock, but I was glad to be at the hub of emergency operations where I was able to relay up-to-the-minute information to not only Fair Lawn but all municipalities.”
In addition to their capacities at the county, Baratta and Trawinski both found time to drive through Fair Lawn and offer help to neighbors in need.
“[I] toured different parts of the borough every morning before 8 a.m. and every evening on the way home,” Trawinski said. “[I] met personally with many of my neighbors to see if they were OK and to offer my help, especially those on Lyncrest Avenue, who like me, were without power.”
In addition to driving through Fair Lawn and visiting residents who were warming up and charging electronics at the community center, Baratta said she stayed in touch with residents via Twitter, Facebook and on her cell phone, where she said she’s always reachable.
On the day Sandy swept through Fair Lawn, Deputy Mayor John Cosgrove, an experienced first responder, spent nearly 24 hours straight taking calls at the borough’s emergency operations center and later toured the town on multiple occasions.
Cosgrove said he remained in frequent contact with Baratta and the EOC, and sat in on daily conference calls with PSEG.
“They were just overwhelmed by this storm,” he said of PSEG. “Our team was contacting them very frequently and they just couldn’t provide the information regarding specific repairs in a timely manner.”
Although some residents have charged that elected officials – especially those with county jobs – should have used their “pull” to get power restored to Fair Lawn more quickly, Metzler said that isn’t how the system works.
“In a disaster, unlike any other event that takes places, the squeaky wheel doesn’t get the grease,” he said. “You can call Public Service a hundred times to report your house is out, but Public Service is going to restore power in the same fashion every time…You can complain to the mayor, you can complain to emergency management, you can complain to Public Service, but it’s not going to change how fast they get it done.”
Nonetheless, Metzler said that any time a resident called to complain about a prolonged power outage, the borough followed up with PSEG to ensure the utility was aware of the situation. PSEG already knew of the outage in all cases, he said.
Metzler said he fully understood the gripping uncertainty people without power felt as the days slowly passed.
When he last spoke to Patch, Metzler was going on two weeks without power and water at his West Milford home, and still hadn't been received any firm estimate on when his power would be restored. Unable to access water from his well because of the outage, Metzler was forced to wash up by boiling pond water on his wood-burning stove, soaping up and then dumping the water over his head.
“The frustration that residents have is they’re sitting in a house in the dark, in the cold, and really have no idea when the power is going to be restored,” he said. “And what residents need to understand is that neither do we.”
While PSEG conducted daily conference calls throughout the storm – something it didn’t do during Irene – the utility only provided government officials the same generic timetable for restoration that it did customers.
“We’re no closer to knowing today than we were at the beginning the storm,” Metzler said of restoration efforts four days into the storm.
It wasn’t until the fifth day, at the behest of Gov. Chris Christie and elected officials from across the region, that PSEG began making its work schedule publicly available. Even that, however, proved problematic when the utility repeatedly underestimated the time it would take to have power fully restored.
Through it all, councilman Kurt Peluso was one of the fortunate residents who never lost power.
As a result, he housed others who did, cleared branches and leaves in his neighborhood, and kept his finger on the pulse of the borough’s emergency operations by attending department head meetings and listening in on conference calls.
On the Thursday following the storm, Peluso began collecting donations for victims in the flood-devastated towns of Moonachie and Little Ferry.
“By [noon Friday], I had a packed car of donations from my household and from many residents from Fair Lawn, to donate to the borough of Moonachie,” he said. “The outpouring of support from our community to help others has been overwhelming.”
Just two days after dropping off the donations in Moonachie, Peluso had filled his car with another round of donations earmarked for Little Ferry, and then proceeded to collect and deliver supplies to Little Ferry for the remainder of the next week.
“Just dropped off the last car load of donations,” a Nov. 9 status on Peluso’s Facebook page reads. “Thank you again to everyone that donated. When the CERT members know me as a ‘regular,’ we know the residents of Fair Lawn made a strong impact on this community.”
Councilwoman Lisa Swain, who -- as Fair Lawn’s mayor last year during Irene -- was on the phone with PSEG until every person in town had their power restored, left those communications up to the borough manager this time.
Despite losing power for the better part of a week, Swain said she felt fortunate that her home didn’t suffer any structural damage and spent her time checking on elderly neighbors, touring the town and popping in at the community center charging station to speak with residents. She also stayed in frequent contact with the manager’s office by phone and email.
Swain said that in spite of the unprecedented number of power outages -- more than half of the town had its electricity and heat knocked out by the storm -- she was gratified by the generosity of residents and volunteers she witnessed helping those in need around town.
Lifelong borough resident and volunteer extraordinaire John Cosgrove echoed Swain’s sentiments and offered some words of encouragement for the community as it recovers.
“In the next few weeks we must all come together to provide support for our neighbors," he said, calling Sandy the worst wind-related storm he’d ever seen in Fair Lawn. "After all, ours is a community that has been built on the dedication of our people. This is why Fair Lawn is such a great place to live!”