The Storm After the Storm: Post-Sandy Relief Effort Met with Delays, Frustration


Ben Reiser

Hurricane Sandy left long-lasting effects. Power outages and tree damage presented challenges in the wake of the storm.

Driving through Sandy-stricken Westport quickly became a game of dodge-the-destruction. Torn trees and cracked limbs weakened the wires between telephone poles to a near-breaking point—and some even past that.

The storm after the storm had begun, and thus the month-long cleanup was under way.

“Based on customers calling in, power is connected but wires are still on the ground,” said AT&T employee Joe Bufford two weeks after the storm hit. “We’ll probably be working on them up until Thanksgiving.”

Despite this long process, the utility companies have done just about all they can do, said Bufford.

The first day of the recovery was to evaluate the most devastated areas. This time, Bufford said, they were New Canaan,Greenwich and Stamford.

“There were trees on cars, trees missing houses by inches,” Bufford said “Every driveway had a wire hanging three feet above the ground.”

These wires would fall under the category of hazardous lines according to Bufford’s order of priority, which he refers to as a “line of urgency.”

Fixing the hazardous lines is the first priority—live power lines either on the ground or obstructing paths. The next highest priority is fixing out-of-service lines that work but are damaged.

“On a daily basis, I’ve probably had to deal with five or six lines down,” Bufford said. “There were a lot of technicians who worked much, much later than they should have.”

And nonetheless, to Westport residents, this work went relatively unnoticed.

With little contact to the outside world, families gathered around tables peppered with lit candles and scattered Scrabble pieces to listen to Fire Inspector Nate Gibbons. Gibbons was hailed as a town hero, as his broadcasts over Staples’ WWPT paralleled FDR’s comforting fireside chats.

“He delivered the updates with a mixture of straight talk and folksy charm, suggesting we practice our high school French with the electrical crews fromQuebec, or if we don’t know how to use a fireplace, don’t start now,”Westport resident Lisa Seidenberg said in a comment on WestportNow.

Others sought comfort insideLong Lots Elementary school, which was open 24 hours toWestportresidents and pets for the duration and aftermath of Sandy. Margaret Pinheiro from the Department of Human Services predicted early on that the shelter would be open for much longer than it had been for Irene, providing cots and Chartwells food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“I can’t speak highly enough of how courteous and helpful the Department of Human Services, the town, and the Red Cross has been. I’m highly impressed with all that they have provided us with,”Westport resident Carole Petray said.

Meanwhile, the 86 percent of Westporters without any electricity chronicled the creeping percentage of power restoration. To many, including First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, it was a waiting game.  

“The response was unacceptably slow,” Joseloff said in a Nov. 6 Code Red alert.

 Much of the town was frustrated with the CL&P seeming lack of communication. 

“After hurricane Irene and the last year’s October snow storm you would have thought that coordination between the different agencies would have improved not gotten worse,” Westport Joe Witz said in a WestportNow comment.

“CL&P has blown through several estimates…[There is] not one sign that CL&P even exists out here. The responses that they give on their hotline are now laughable,” Westporter Bruce Fields responded.

However, safety came first to the men and women handling the restorations. This, according to Bufford, was something cable clients had trouble understanding.

“Some people don’t understand what we do,” Bufford said. “They’re only concerned about being out of service, but not concerned with our safety getting them back into service.”

While no co-worker who Bufford knew of was seriously injured from power lines or other storm hazards, maintaining their own safety is still paramount.

“If power is down or dead, it could still go live at any time. Before a job last week, I asked one customer, and they said they had no power,” Bufford said. “It wasn’t until after I had gone up on the roof, bumping into wires and doing what I’m doing, that I get down and a neighbor tells me they got power back yesterday.”

While he faced his own share of dangers, Bufford believes the overall efforts were planned as well as they could have been, as Hurricane Sandy struck stronger than last year’s Irene. Nonetheless, according to him, 96 to 97 percent ofConnecticuthad power back earlier than they did after last year’s storm.

“The last storm wasn’t this way. This time, instead of everybody waiting for the storm to hit, we were ahead of the game,” Bufford said. “It hit differently, too. Last time just trees and poles were down. This time there was flooding to handle.”

And he highlights one virtue that he says will alleviate the stresses of the surrounding damage.

“People need to have patience,” Bufford said. “When a storm like this hits, it’s good to see patience in a community.”