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October Snowstorm: Department of Public Works Perspective

As input for a story, West Hartford Patch posed several questions to Director of Public Works John Phillips to get his impressions of last October's storm and aftermath. His own words were so compelling that they are deserving of their own story.

As Director of Public Works, John Phillips is on the front lines of any storm clean-up effort. The following questions were posed last week, before the ominous predictions of another major storm on the same exact date.

On Thursday morning, when asked about Hurricane Sandy, Phillips said, "My comfort level going into this is totally different. We had never trained before. Structure is important. We're in a good spot this time," Phillips said.

Here is what Phillips said about "Snowtober."

How do you think you and your department interacted with CL&P?

Our department worked effectively with CL&P out in the field. Our DPW work crews have always had a good working relationship with regional CL&P work crews. Specifically, we were fortunate to have a resident lineman assigned to us for days immediately after the storm. His role in assisting our traffic safety staff proved to be essential to the success we had during the first few days of the clean-up and restoration work.

That teamwork was key to the speed with which our in-house tree crews were able to clear down trees across critical town roads, allowing West Hartford emergency, residential, and commercial traffic to navigate all of our streets by day 6 after the storm. All arterial and secondary arterials had been cleared within two days with very few exceptions.

The joint effort helped to identify, isolate, ground, and in some cases de-energize downed power lines – by far the deadliest hazard – so our tree crews could perform their work with minimal electrical hazards.

The interaction between town leadership and CL&P leadership was at times dysfunctional, and often unproductive. We found it more beneficial for us to use the skill and talent of our Police and DPW crews to identify and address our local issues in a more efficient manner.

The need for good and timely information was critical to keep our residents and business informed. As a first time event for most of the people involved it was almost predictable. We never had to communicate in such a manner before and I think each team had different agendas for what we, or they, thought would be the most productive.  

Has that relationship changed (for better or for worse) since the storm and its aftermath?

I would like to think so. It is certainly a work in progress. We have a new emergency management liaison team. CL&P has done a lot of work clarifying roles, responsibilities, guidelines, and procedures for all parties involved in the next emergency.

In July, the state and local governments participated with CL&P in a mock Category 3 hurricane exercise, implementing new guidelines and procedures during that time.

Training is the key to readiness. I’m confident we have made improvements to the professional and working relationship necessary for a successful outcome.  

How onerous was the process of cataloging everything for FEMA reimbursement?

I’m not sure if I can describe how onerous this process was. It involved hundreds of work hours dedicated to the grant application while still conducting the towns day-to-day business. West Hartford manages our day to day operations with a very skilled and competent staff. However we are a very lean staff.

It took tremendous sacrifice for DPW Budget Analyst Tom Niedzwicki to successfully collect, categorize, and edit our grant applications. All in all we submitted 17 grant applications that FEMA consolidated to 13.

Each activity had to be a separate application – activities such as the curb-side collection, each shelter the town operated, Police Department incurred cost, Fire Department activity, street and traffic light damage, public building damage, etc. The documentation was in the thousands of pages to identify expenses directly related to the Nor’Easter.

We cleaned up 5,000 roadside and school property hazardous trees through “the hanger program.” That project alone created over 15,000 photographs to identify the hazard, capture the work, and show the size of the limb removed.

The efforts of town staff and contractor resources cannot be underestimated. Decisions made in the first hours of the damage assessment and the road-clearing work certainly supported the success of the daunting task the town had ahead in order to comply with the FEMA grant process.

I recall speaking with the town manager and the mayor early and often the morning after the storm. They we looking for me to provide recommendations and solutions that would restore our community in the safest and most efficient way possible.

To their credit they supported my reasoning and approach to the storm clean-up projects. By Monday morning, Oct. 31, we had signed our agreement to proceed with Ashbrit – one of the nation’s leading disaster relief contractors – and SAIC, a leading firm hired to monitor and document the relief effort to the specificity that FEMA requires.

Both of these contractors were made available to us via the DEEP debris management contracts and due to the governor quickly declaring a disaster area. I believe we were one the first communities to sign and begin our disaster relief work.

As of this writing we have submitted all of our FEMA packages and have reimbursement commitments. We are still working with the FHWA on their required grant reimbursement process. We are hopeful those applications will be reimbursed as well.

Have any procedures changed within DPW as a result of storm debriefings?

There are no major changes, but it was certainly a good critique of how we did. We need to improve on our internal flow of information from the collection of work data to the execution of meaningful work orders, but for the most part we performed as we should have.

We really worked as a team with common goals. We take great pride in being the agency responsible for restoring the community and providing the quality of life we depend on.

We do need to consider the investments that would modernize the work flow of the department. Technology is available that can improve our work flow and assignments in the most efficient and cost effective manner. Technology like GPS locators in our work trucks, knowing where they are and the work they are doing, is valuable information in the emergency management decision process.

GPS mapping of work flow can give management leaders the information needed to make informed decisions by determining priorities and eliminating work assignments getting lost in process.

Information is power and we need to modernize our work process for the future of this department. It's a change I hope will develop because of what we learned last year.

At what point did you realize that this was going to be more than your normal early season snowstorm? (I remember talking a few days beforehand when you said you were having the plows put on the trucks and would probably take them off on Sunday.)

I remember speaking with you the days leading up to the storm. Yes, I had hoped we would be quickly removing the plows so we could return to our normal late October work flow. On Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, I started to feel a need to be over prepared. Call it my military background intuition.

I sent an email to the management team to instill confidence in our abilities to be successful no matter the magnitude of the forecasted event. I typically don’t send emails out like that prior to a routine storm.

Town Manager Ron VanWinkle even joined me on a review of our readiness and toured the DPW yard that Friday afternoon. He has never done that in the past. My gut tells me he had some uneasy feelings about this one event. I’m confident DPW staff left Ron at ease heading into the storm.

We were ready for whatever ...

At 11 a.m. Oct. 29 I was in Wallingford traveling on Route 68. Snow had just started. Route 68 quickly became a slushy mess. I remember saying to my wife who was with me, “This isn’t good.” As we approached the Durham line there was a already a rollover accident with clear signs that road conditions and speed had caused it. I remember calling my street manager to call in all available plow truck staff…game on!

At 9:30 p.m., Oct. 29, the sounds of a busy town were replaced by the distinctive sound of wood breaking. Like popcorn in a microwave, pops separated by seconds, then the popping over popping until the snow stopped sometime after midnight.

Then toward daybreak, a slower pop of trees no longer able to hold onto the weight of this Halloween Nor-Easter.

Around 9:30 p.m. was also the time I pulled all of our plow drivers off the road. We are hardened drivers of snow covered roads, but even our best efforts were no match for mother nature on this night. We were forced to sit back and let her unleash her power until daybreak.  

In your opinion, how has West Hartford's landscape changed in the past year?

Certainly we lost some trees, but as a whole, I think the town’s appearance hasn’t changed too significantly. We still have a very mature urban forest.

This year’s vibrant fall color has been spectacular, showing little sign of the tree inventory being vastly changed.

I believe our mindset of our landscape has changed. We all have a better appreciation on what a beautiful tree is capable of doing. We all need to be more considerate when planning tree plantings with proper placement, species, and the pruning of our roadside trees.

It’s important we find the right balance of maintaining our landscape and being respectful of the utilities and road access necessary for our community lifelines.

 

I took a great deal out of this experience. I feel in a lot of ways I grew personally and professionally.

The weight of expectations from our residents, political leaders, senior town management, business leaders, other state agencies was at times overwhelming. Just knowing I had a job to do and the steadfast support to do my job was all of the confidence I needed to be successful.

My crews first and foremost were superstars. The physical nature of the work is always overwhelming. Most had their own homes to worry about. They worked tirelessly without any major incidents.

I was nervous as the disaster relief project got underway. Damage assessments changed daily. Information was coming so fast and unorganized it was hard at time to determine what was real or not.

The volume of debris collected exceeded anyone's best guest or estimate. We end up collecting 380,000 cubic yards of material – more than any other community.

The last piles were collected by 29 days after the storm. All of the material was processed and disposed of one week later.

You literally had to put an eye on each and every situation. Town leadership put tremendous responsibility on me. I hope I was able to meet their expectation and prove West Hartford Public Works is the best and the brightest. We do more everyday with less.  

I experienced some great collaboration with neighborhood groups organizing and accomplishing clean-up work prior to our ability to get there first. Business leaders offering their service and the dozen of community volunteers.

West Hartford came together as one for those 11 plus days. I was proud to be a small part of it.

John Maloney October 26, 2012 at 08:38 PM
Great article ! I recall working Hurricane Gloria with the DPW..NO fun!.I hope ppl remember that Oct. storm and now are ready for Sandy...Good Luck W.Hartford
Damon Bramble October 28, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Agree - great article. I can't say enough about how DPW responded to that storm; we went from looking like a dark war zone back to our clean, safe neighborhood much more quickly than I expected. It was great to hear how the town, state, and federal administration came together in an organized manner to get the job done. Great job Mr. Phillips and great job DPW!

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