Larry Perlstein is a long-time Westport resident, and Staples High School graduate. He cares full-time for his wife and 12-year-old daughter, and authors a blog for caregivers.
This is a rant. I hope this does not provoke ire. I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, any government or any specific company. But I am in the midst of unprecedented craziness between the pandemic, the storm, the heat wave, etc. My emotions are running wild, so please hear me out — and be civil.
Can we all agree that disaster planning in general is a disaster? Having lived in Westport or nearby since 1970 (minus 10 years in the San Francisco Bay Area), I notice we recover quickly after a storm only when we are lucky — not because we were prepared.
For example, I live near a road that is a nightmare after any significant storm. Isaias brought down 5 or 6 large trees. Eversource regularly trims the trees, and owners of the multi-million-dollar houses take good care of their properties. But it’s to no avail. The road gets battered. There’s no taming Mother Nature, and no guessing what damage might occur.
After each storm we hear the same complaints, and go through the same discussions: The forecast was wrong. The utilities were slow to respond. The governor is angry at the utilities. The town was hardest hit and angry at the utilities. The people living on private roads (60% of Westport) don’t get enough attention from the town. Utility, cable and phone support lines are overloaded or non-existent. People ignore warnings to avoid downed lines. And so on.
In my case, 3 trees fell. They took down all my power, cable and phone lines, and blocked my driveway. I called the police non-emergency number 2 days after the storm, alerting them that wires were down across my road, and that my family (including my disabled wife and 12-year-old daughter) were essentially trapped in the house.
The response was disheartening. The officer said it wasn’t worth putting tape across the road because people tear it down or drive over it, and they did not have any lists of contractors or individuals who might be able to cut us out. Basically, it is what it is.
Thankfully I had a generator and gas. A neighbor helped me find a great tree company. After 2 days, we extricated oruselves.
I suggest that we stop thinking we can develop grand disaster plans, and instead focus on practical strategies that will improve our resilience.
Here’s a list of services that the state and town might provide that would be useful after a storm. I’m sure some of these things exist, and some might be impossible. But we should use this as a starting point:
- Police and fire departments should have access to a list of tree and electrical contractors that can be provided to homeowners. The list should include those willing to donate services for low-income households.
- Town emergency messages should include areas/roads to avoid, gas stations and grocery stores that are open, cell services that are impacted, and outage reporting numbers for Eversource, Optimum, Frontier, etc.
- The state should provide low-interest loans or grants to acquire and install generators for families with disabled or elderly members, and critical facilities and businesses such as senior centers, gas stations and grocery markets.
- The state should offer emergency relief for homeowners with significant tree damage. Most homeowner insurance plans offer only $500 for a tree that might cost $2500+ to take down. California offers earthquake insurance. Why can’t Connecticut have tree damage insurance?
- The town should have backup generator capability for critical cell towers. Thank god for my good old Frontier copper landline that kept working even with my lines down.
- The state should regulate Altice’s internet business to ensure accelerated investment in maintaining/upgrading existing infrastructure, and monitor their storm response. I never did find a way to report an outage.
- Local radio stations such as WICC, WEBE, and WEZN should be enlisted to provide road closure and other emergency information, and someone should figure out what the “Emergency Alert System” can actually be used for. I continued to hear tests on my battery powered radio, but no actual alerts.
- The town’s Department of Human Services should be sufficiently staffed (with volunteers if necessary) to handle incoming requests for support, and proactive outreach to the voluntary disability registry. Volunteer groups that provided amazing support during the early days of the pandemic should be coordinated by this office to supply gas, food, water, etc., to households unable to do it themselves.
Many more things can be done, but I’ve tried to keep the list reasonable. Having watched and participated in the volunteer efforts that sprang up after the start of the pandemic, I’m certain that with a little centralized organization and some political will on behalf of the town and state, we can make recovery from storms more palatable.
One last note: While our state and local representatives rake Eversource over the coals (again), I urge everyone to remember that the workers who fix our problems have likely left their own families in the middle of their own problems. These folks are our current heroes. I can’t wait to hug one of those heroes (from a distance) when my power gets restored.