By Karen Zautyk
Last October, when Hurricane Sandy struck, township authorities sprang into action. That included not only, as expected, the first responders, but also, not necessarily expected, elected officials. “Every commissioner was out on the road during the storm,” Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers told us last week at an interview in his Chestnut St. office. “And,” he added, “we were here in this building [also housing the Health Department] 24/7.”
Thanks to the team efforts of all the township departments, including Public Safety, Public Works, Parks & Rec, and even Finance, “within 72 hours after the storm left, it was like it never happened,” Rogers said. The streets had been cleared of all the downed trees and branches and other Sandy debris. There were no reports of injuries in the community. And even the lost animals were doing fine. “Five dogs that were out in the middle of the storm were rescued,” Rogers said. “All were reunited with their families.”
So, following a job well done under extreme circumstances, is Nutley resting on its laurels?
Hardly. The town has just announced a new initiative, the Nutley Public Health Reserve Corps, an organization of volunteers who are “being trained and readied to provide a number of critical services to township residents when a severe weather event disrupts electrical grids, communications and other services.”
Its formation is a direct result of the hurricane. “During the storm, there were a lot of lessons learned regarding preparedness,” Rogers told The Observer.
The Corps’ goal is to have “an operational plan in place 72 hours before an expected catastrophic weather event,” Rogers said. And at least 24 hours beforehand, warming/ cooling centers “will be up and running.” Those who shivered through several days without heat after Sandy or suffered without AC in the recent heat wave can appreciate the need for those, which are especially important for senior citizens and individuals with health problems.
“We have cots, food, housing for pets, refrigeration for medicine, charging strips, cleaning stations for babies, and everything needed to adequately supply a warming/ cooling center,” Rogers noted in an Aug. 20 announcement. “We want to make sure the needs of all are met,” he told us.
He said the planned locations, to be opened progressively, will be at Nutley Amvets on Walnut St., Grace Episcopal Church on Highfield Lane, and, if needed, John Walker Middle School.
Each of the centers will have its own site manager, and on stand-by there will be a nurse and also a behavioral psychologist to help anyone emotionally traumatized by the crisis.
The volunteers will also check on residents’ well-being. And the town has been compiling a list of people with special medical needs, such as those who might be dependent on oxygen or whose medication must be refrigerated. “We want to make sure every possible contingency plan will be in place,” Rogers stated.
The commissioner clarified that the weather events the Reserve Corps will address are those “that have not reached the level requiring the activation of the Office of Emergency Management.” And he reported last week, “I briefed the Office of Emergency Management, and they like the plan. In the event the OEM is activated, we will give them full supervisory control over the operations.”
The commissioner and the Health Department have been working on the Reserve Corps idea for a year, in partnership with the Nutley Family Service Bureau and the Montclair Public Health Reserve Corps, which was launched in that town in 2007.
In charge of the Montclair group is health educator Erica Abbruzzese, who is training the Nutley vols. “We want them to know what is expected of them and what is expected of us for the preparedness of them and their own families,” she said.
That family preparedness, by the way, is something everyone might take into consideration before the next storm hits. To that end, Nutleyites can contact the Department of Public Affairs to obtain an informational checklist.
Last Thursday evening, the department conducted a tabletop exercise with volunteers and staff personnel, “going over logistics, strategy, and other issues related to providing critical health care and other services to Nutley residents.
” Volunteers will be given specific assignments and they will also serve as “our communications link between us and neighborhoods that are without electrical power,” Rogers noted. During Sandy, once the electrical grids failed, “we had no way to communicate with the public,” he said.
“Streets were dark, there was no phone or Internet service, and people were scared for lack of information.”
What Nutley will use in the event of a repeat crisis, the commisioner calls “an 18th-century method of communication.”
According to an Aug. 20 press release, “TheDepartment of Public Affairs is organizing ‘neighborhood points of contact’ (NPOC) on each street. When a power failure disrupts our township,” the Reserve Corps “will hand-deliver sheets of information to the NPOCs for dissemination in each neighborhood. If people need to be transported to a warming/ cooling center, the Health Department will get them the transportation. If they have needs that require the services of the other commissioners, that information will be passed onto them.”
For the communications plan to work, though, literally hundreds of volunteers from all areas of town are needed specifically for that. A list is being compiled, with a target completion date of Oct. 1.
Anyone willing to become a “point of contact” in their neighborhood during a power outage is asked to call Ann Marie Nicolette at Rogers’ office, 973-284-4976, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any resident who wishes to become a member of the overall Nutley Public Health Reserve Corps can contact Tom Restaino at 973- 284-4976 or email him at email@example.com. As of last week, 25 Nutleyites had joined the Corps and Rogers anticipated more coming on board.
Any Nutley citizen age 18 and older can volunteer for the Reserve Corps; they need not be health-care professionals. In addition to working at the warming/cooling centers, assistance is needed in a number of areas, including, but not limited to: data entry, copying, filing, answering phones, security, transportation, translation, etc., etc.
One other note, harkening back to those lost, storm-frightened dogs: The Reserve Corps is partnering with local veterinarians “in case we have to provide for animals,” Rogers said. Did we mention this plan is comprehensive?