Town Board Gets Earful Over Sandy Response

Frustrated residents blast board on communication.

At Tuesday's meeting, members of New Castle's Town Board gave a recap of the town's response to Hurricane Sandy and said they were open to feedback from improvement. What they heard in response from the public was frustration over the recovery.

In particular, several residents - about two dozen showed up - criticized the town over communication to the public, feeling that the response was inadequate.

“It seemed like there was none," said Dawn Greenberg, adding that for the first four days it seemed like there was "radio silence." 

Steven Camhi said he was surprised that the town board, along with Con Edison still aren't able to communicate effectively, noting that New Castle has been hit by previous storms.

“I don't think it's right that we're in this predicmant now because we had Hurricane Sandy," he said.

Judy McGrath felt that the town should use the Nixle alert system more than it already does.

Town Board members expressed willingness to improve communications.

Councilman Jason Chapin suggested emulating the response system that the Chappaqua school district used for Sandy, which included Superintendent Lyn McKay doing robocall status updates. 

Councilman Robin Stout called for making it easier to get information from residents on social media, such as the Chappaqua Moms Facebook group - members mobilized frequently in the aftermath - to better learn what's happening.

Residents also worried about public safety and the degree of the town's presence.

Greenberg cited an anecdote of custodial staff directing traffic on Route 120 by Roaring Brook Elementary School. Patti Robbins, worried that her neighborhood was not open enough for a firetruck to pass through, and noted that a wire was still down.

At times the meeting became tense, with personal conduct of the board members criticized.

Greenberg told Town Supervisor Carpenter that a neighbor of hers contacted Carpenter on a Friday night and that she responded by calling complainers "spoiled brats."

“And I take offense to that," Greenberg said.

Carpenter responded by saying she did not know who her neighbor was.

“I answered many, many phone calls,” Carpenter said, and that she replied to “everything I could respond to.”

Robin Murphy criticized Councilman John Buckley for going to Lange's, which served as a refuge for people without power, and getting food without interacting with constituents. The remark appeared to hit a nerve with Buckley, who took umbrage. 

“You know, you have no clue what I do," he said. Buckley defended his actions during the aftermath, with bringing coffee to residents and helping with shelter transport as examples.

Murphy also felt that the town board was being too defensive with its reply to the public.

Talk, at times, shifted to infrastructure, public safety presences and the competence of Con Edison.

Police Chief Charles Ferry, responding to a traffic concern about responding to an intersection without a working traffic light, explained that it would be risky to have officers out when the roads are dangerous. Ferry, who was joined by Department of Public Works Commissioner Anthony Vaccaro, defended the town's handling of the crisis. They, along with town board members, noted that their efforts for the recovery are limited by Con Edison and that the town can't restore power.

“Our hands were tied as far as power restoration," Ferry, who noted that town personnel worked in 16-hour shifts and that some didn't go home. "It's not our job. We can't go out there and put power back to your houses.” Ferry also described difficulty with Con Edison, calling their municipal calls "a shouting match.”

Carpenter said that Con Edison "was just simply not prepared and not organized enough to even give us information about where the crews would be and what they were doing.”

“We don't have a local electrical restoration department," said Stout. "That's not what we do."

A problem with the recovery pace, it was explained by the town's side, is that the town is hampered in clearing trees when they are downed wires because Con Edison is relied on to assess whether or not the wires are still live.

There was also talk at the meeting for more radical infrastructure changes, including clearing of trees and power line burial.

Ralph Byers called for more aggressive tree removal near power lines, arguing that they pose a threat to the stability of keeping power.

“Just take them down," he said. Byers, recalling history, noted that in the town's agrarian past, land was once largely cleared of trees.

Carpenter was receptive to changing the town's tree ordinance with concern to pruning. She also felt that some types of trees are not appropriate for being close to power lines and roadways.

Judy McGrath called for consideration of power line burial.

While board members did not explicitly rule out burying lines, it was noted that, in the recent past during early stages of the Chappaqua hamlet plan for the business district, that the town got a 7-figure price quote for doing so downtown.

The views of the public were not unanimous at the meeting, however.

Phyillis Kirshner called for people to take personal responsbility for examining trees, and said she resented the fact that people were attacking the board.

“I think we have a responsibility. We can't blame everything on Con Ed.”

Victoria Alzapiedi hoped that there would be a balance between taking trees down and considering the ecological positives of trees.

Michele November 16, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Two hurricanes and 2 snowstorms down. (Not looking forward to next fall.) Let's finally hope that everyone will learn from these experiences because there will be more on the horizon. Get prepared!!!
MK Bob November 18, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Chapp Dad, you're quite right. We don't need pablum. We need actions. We need to be prepared for the next one and the one after and the one after that. We won't get there by "reviewing", "revisiting", "expanding" and "partnering" (the actions Susan Carpenter wants, according to Tom's story). Apparently, we don't have community leaders that know what changes to make. I can understand. We've always run our community as a little bucolic slice of suburbia and relied completely on others to take care of our needs. But, Mother Nature has changed the playing field. We need to regain control of our infrastructure and mobilize our police, fire, dpw and volunteer community members to quickly get our town up and running as effectively and safely as possible when these emergencies strike. There's no excuse for intersections that are unmanned and trees blocking roads because we're waiting for ConEd to tell us if a wire is live. We're capable of handling these issues ourselves when no one else will help. We need organization, training and tools - and we need to start now.
Jen November 19, 2012 at 10:06 PM
I really think it would be great if Susan Carpenter put out an email via Nixle to, after Sandy and the subsequent town meeting, outline for us what the towns future preparations would be when they are told a massive storm is coming. Also, what specific problems came up this time, and how they would tackle them the next time. How would they address a ton of downed trees and lines, non-functional traffic lights, advise to residents about how to avoid house fires, centers for residents for cell service, internet, cable, showers, etc., generator maintenance or purchase information, updates on town communications with utility companies, etc. I'd like to know we've created a formula out of this recent disaster.
MyFairShare November 26, 2012 at 05:39 PM
Seriously Dr Rubin. We have elected officials that *Didn't do their job*. Yes, I'm glad I didnt die in the storm or get injured - the fact remains people who work for the tax payers of this town - did and continue to do their jobs POORLY. You're holistic approach to crisis management might benefit from some clear eyed sober objectivity.
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