Safety Subcommittee hears comments on Oct. 29 storm response
Date: 12/20/2011Dec. 21, 2011
By Debbie Gardner
Approximately 15 residents joined the Public Safety Subcommittee for a joint workshop with the Energy Commission at the Agawam Public Library on Dec. 12.
The topic of discussion was the challenges presented by the Oct. 29 snowstorm, and Subcommittee Chair James Cichetti said there were no lack of questions or comments about everything from gas station protocols to post-storm cleanup.
Cichetti said it was those types of questions posed to him in post-storm telephone calls and emails that prompted him to call for the workshop.
“We wanted to know what went right [and] what went wrong,” Cichetti said, adding that his subcommittee is planning to pass on what they learned to Mayor Richard Cohen and Agawam Emergency Management Director Chet Nicora, both of whom had previous commitments that evening and were unable to attend. He added that the subcommittee is planning to host another public hearing on storm response in January, 2012.
Among the questions raised by residents were what town buildings should be used for emergency shelters in a future disaster, if it was possible to require gas stations to have backup generators in the event of prolonged power outages, how to ensure important information gets to residents who don’t have corded phones or whose phones aren’t working and when the post-storm cleanup was finally going to be completed.
Cichetti said one thing he and Cohen had already discussed was the need to make townspeople aware of how they could ensure they receive information in an emergency such as the storm.
“We’re trying to make everyone aware that they can get into the town website and list a cell phone [number] or another family member’s cell phone [as an emergency contact],” Cichetti said.
And though Cichetti said he heard numerous comments about the lack of information as to when the power was coming back on, he did not hear complaints about the response by utility companies.
State Sen. Michael Knapik, who attended the meeting at Cichetti’s invitation, said the exchange he observed was something he’s seen throughout his constituency.
“This conversation about the storm aftermath is going on in every city and town and we’re all learning what we can improve on,” Knapik said. “Many citizens were concerned, upset and angry. I think we all recognize, from the major utilities [to] state and local governments, we could all sharpen our response.”
Knapik, who will begin representing Agawam under the new redistricting plan taking effect in in 2012, said the first time he heard about some area nursing homes not having adequate generator backup power or any backup power source was at the Agawam meeting. That situation, coupled with the lack of backup power at gas stations, are two areas where Knapik said either state building codes or local ordinances need to consider changes going forward.
“Is there an appropriate role for mandating [generators], knowing there is a cost for everything?” Knapik said. “We’re looking at these concerns.”
Another problem Knapik said both state and local officials are investigating is the lack of reliable communication during the storm.
Citizen’s complaints including “How come my cell phone is not working” [and] “how come 21st century technology is not as accessible as we thought,” were repeated across the Commonwealth, he noted.
During a brief address at the meeting, Knapik said he also touched upon one of the major complaints statewide the response by and communication from the public utilities.
“That was one of my reasons for speaking,” Knapik said. “The state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is investigating the response of Northeast Utilities and Western Massachusetts electric company.”
He said cities, town and individuals can still weigh in on the emergency response by the utility companies by logging on to the DPU website at http://www.mass.gov/eea/energy-utilities-clean-tech/electric-power/customer-rights-and-info/consumer-assistance/consumer-complaint/
“What comes out of that may be a need for more legislation,” Knapik noted.
He also said given the enormous cost of the post-storm cleanup in towns such as Agawam, he and his fellow legislators would, as they did following the June 1 tornado, be petitioning the state legislature for “reimbursement for a portion of the local share that is not covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) .”
Knapik said if the Oct. 29 snowstorm is declared a natural disaster by FEMA that agency would reimburse cities and towns for 75 percent of the eligible cleanup cost. Debbie Gardner can be reached by email at email@example.com