By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Even though Hurricane Sandy caused some tricky problems – the generator at Shady Acres nursing home failed, there was no phone service at the emergency dispatch center for two hours on storm day and schools didn’t reopen until Friday because there was no power at Wawaloam Elementary – most people agree that the town’s emergency plan worked.
Except for those still in the dark at week’s end, the majority praised various departments including public works, fire and rescue, emergency management and the town sergeant’s office. Even National Grid, which responded so poorly after Tropical Storm Irene, received its share of kudos for working closely with emergency management director Stefan Coutoulakis to respond in a commonsense way.
In a report to the town council, Andrew Treat, assistant director of EMA who was substituting for a recently-hospitalized Coutoulakis, offered a breakdown of how situations were handled on a daily basis:
n The day of the storm, three rescues were staffed and positioned on South County Trail, Nooseneck Hill Road and the rescue barn on Ten Rod Road while Exeter 1 and 2 staffed the fire stations; Shady Acres nursing home was inaccessible until DPW cleared a path via Mail and Hoghouse Hill roads; and primary power lines fell onto a house, trapping the occupants until they were rescued by the fire department and National Grid.
n At 7:41 p.m. that same day, there was no telephone service to the dispatch center after a switchboard failed near Hallville Road. Treat worked with Verizon personnel and service was finally restored two hours later. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there is still a problem. Steps need to be taken so that the switchboard operates properly during power loss and provides uninterrupted telephone service.”
n On Tuesday, the fire department responded to a house with a dangerous level of carbon monoxide which was caused by a new generator venting exhaust through a clothes dryer. At 7:25 p.m., the Shady Acres generator failed. EMA and the fire department answered the call and a backup was obtained from West Greenwich. The cause of the generator failure was determined to be a computer board malfunction.
n National Grid crews continued to restore power throughout town and fire personnel returned to the house with the carbon monoxide problem. After mistakenly thinking they’d fixed the situation, the residents restarted the generator, causing twice as much carbon monoxide to build up. The fire department shut it down again with instructions not to use the generator until a contractor makes permanent repairs.
n By Thursday, 177 customers remained without power along Purgatory and Old Voluntown roads and in the Slocum area. Schools reopened on Friday and the next morning power was returned to the final five homes affected by the hurricane.
During clean-up, the seven men of the public works department and its director, Steve Mattscheck, were either a step ahead or hard on the heels of Sandy, after removing leaves from drains the previous Thursday and Friday. After Sandy passed through, they focused on a large number of downed trees.
According to Mattscheck, everyone arrived at the garage by the scheduled 7 a.m. start time on Monday and worked until it became a safety issue. “I pulled them off the road for a while,” he said. “It was dangerous.” Reports had come in from EMA that public works vehicles in neighboring communities including North Kingstown and Richmond had been struck by falling trees.
“We came in, had a snack and then went back out.” The next day, the town’s bucket truck – obtaining through a federal grant at no cost to taxpayers – proved to be worth its weight in gold. Starting on Mail Road where limbs were hanging over the roadway with drivers trying to squeeze underneath, DPW crews cut back trees – many entangled with power lines – and pulled them off the roadways.
“If not for that truck, we would have had to wait who knows how long,” Mattscheck said. “Some limbs were blocking the roads, some hanging over; it was very dangerous. With trees taken out of the way, fire apparatus could go through and people could drive. It was one big circle of progress.”
Although his men were busy all over town, Mattscheck said the largest single concentration of damage was on Wolf Rock Road where eight to 10 trees were down with half of them in the wires. “Three trees and one pole were down on School Lane Road and a huge ash tree came down and took everything on Tripps Corner Road.”
The DPW team ran like a well-oiled machine with its seven guys receiving 10 hours of overtime each – a small amount to cover a sizable land mass.
It worked, said Mattscheck, because he had a backhoe with a jaw bucket on the back in the western end of town and a payloader with a jaw bucket on the eastern end. “They can back up to a tree, grab it and move it right off the road and onto the side, then move to the next tree. It’s more efficient and faster; safer for the crew.”
Bill Monahan, the town council liaison to DPW, said, “I thought they did an excellent job. Most of the roads were open the night of the storm; the following day a lot of the roads were completely cleaned up. It’s the same thing they do whenever they have this kind of job – get out there, work hard, get it finished.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.