Towns, churches respond in Irene's wake
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Region - posted Tue., Sep. 6, 2011
Local municipalities got a chance to see just how well they could help their residents weather a storm in the wake of tropical storm Irene. As local residents faced days without electricity, water, phones or refrigeration, towns and local agencies around the area offered everything from a drive-through morning coffee stop to a place to take a shower or sleep.
Voluntown Baptist Church put up a small tent and some traffic cones in its parking lot to offer a coffee drive-through for caffeine-craving residents. The Rev. David Larsen said that even though businesses 6 miles away in Jewett City were up and running by the day after the storm, the jolt of joe in Voluntown would be “enough to get them on their way” to work in the morning.
Voluntown Baptist stayed open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily during the week of the storm’s aftermath, powered by a generator. Larsen said that it was braced to be a primary shelter for town residents if needed, with overflow guests to be housed at Voluntown Elementary School.
Though no one ended up staying overnight, church members offered visitors water, food, Internet access and a place to recharge cell phones. They had a stockpile of three days’ worth of drinking water, Larsen said.
Just as important, he said, was the offer of company to residents who were feeling isolated by the power outage. A full complement of board games, along with a big-screen TV, awaited folks who needed a respite from more primitive conditions at home.
On the Wednesday after the storm, a dozen people still without power were treated to a home-cooked lamb and potatoes dinner.
“Usually people shelter in place,” said Larsen. “But if 250 people show up, we make room for them.”
The Jewett City Fire Department was stocked with bedding, generator power and food for residents, about a dozen of whom took up the firefighters on their offer. The Griswold Fire Department at Pachaug also hosted some temporary guests, along with a number of residents who refilled water containers at the fire house’s outdoor hose. The department also had a lunch truck in its parking lot at the end of last week, serving hot food.
In Sprague, residents could get water at the fire department and the town hall. “We gave out food where we could,” said Sprague First Selectman Catherine Osten.
As businesses sprang back to life with power restored, the prime issue for many became getting clean. Schools in Sprague, Voluntown and Griswold all opened the doors to their locker rooms for local residents to take free showers.
Several municipal officials said that they planned to hold meetings of town staff and emergency personnel in upcoming weeks to look at the storm’s events and find ways to improve community response. “We want to upgrade the emergency plans. Some things were a little slow reacting,” said Voluntown First Selectman Ronald Millovitsch. “We want to write something up so we can have a plan that everybody knows.”
He said coordinating shelters and getting the word out to residents as to where they are and when they’re open would be one of the priorities. Also, he said, it would be helpful for local towns to have a regional plan for working with Connecticut Light & Power to restore electrical service.
Even so, Millovitsch said, “Everyone did an excellent job. If it had been a category 2 [hurricane], we would be cutting trees for two months.”