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A Grateful Town Recognizes its Heroes

Many volunteers and planning made all the difference in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.

Actor Christopher Reeve was quoted before his death saying, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

East Haddam First Selectman Mark Walter believes Emergency Management Director Craig Mansfield meets the definition of “hero” following the tropical storm, which recently raged through the area.

Describing Mansfield  as “very thorough and very dedicated to the town,” Walter said, “Everything he does for emergency management, is in preparation of such an event.”  

“While the storm was going on, he did not take any shifts as a constable, so he could focus as emergency management director. He also took a week’s vacation from his full-time job, which was was a huge sacrifice.”

Mansfield said he appreciated Walter’s comments, but shrugged them off, saying there were so many people involved before, during, and after the storm, it’s impossible to name them all. “I am not about taking credit for this in any way, shape, or form…There were a lot of people that surely made this all happen. We had probably hundreds of volunteers over the course of a week, some of them putting in 10 hours a day.  We had Community Lions, Lions, town employees, students.” Others involved included senior citizens and the youth soccer team.

The East Haddam resident said the role of the emergency management director is to coordinate and ensure that resources are available, everyone stays safe, and that everything gets done as effectively and efficiently as possible.

“Every department really knows what they have to do every day. So the fire department isn’t doing anything different than they do most days. And public works, yeah, they’re out cutting trees, but they do that.”

Mansfield said the town is very fortunate to have so many dedicated volunteers to call on, which are made up of a 30-member Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) that  have been through the nationwide program and another 40-50 people who have not gone through the CERT training, but have helped out regularly with locals events in East Haddam.

 “I think one of the biggest advantages going into this, was we did a lot of pre-storm meetings. On Thursday, we had our first meeting (reviewing checklists and preparation) with all the department heads – all of the public safety groups, the board of selectmen, fire/police personnel/EMS, police, public works, emergency management, school superintendent/kitchen/maintenance staff, as well as youth and family services and food bank personnel."

A small group met again Friday to ensure that any “open” items that weren’t done on Friday had been completed and “that they were all on the same page.”

Saturday at 2 p.m., a meeting was held with about 30 volunteers.  By the end of that meeting, Mansfield said, “we had staffed the senior center for the Emergency Operation Center at 10 p.m. Saturday night into Sunday during the day…We knew going into it that we had our volunteers already in place…So even before the storm hit, I had a whole list of volunteers through my assistant, Deputy Director Jiffy Spencer.”

When the storm subsided on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., Walter said members of the public works, police, fire and ambulance departments went out as reconnaissance teams just in case anything bad happened. “They cleared all the roads they could that didn’t have wires. So within the first day, we had cleared everything we could.”

They saw areas that had been hit really hard. “It must have been microbursts of small tornadoes that went through our town. We had it worse than any town around around us…We just lived in the emergency operation center and went out on all of our missions to keep everything running.”

One day when Walter and others were out surveying areas that still needed attention, he said Public Works Administrator Beth Lunt “came back shaking, because she found kids swinging on electrical lines as if they were part of a jungle gym. That was probably the worst aspect of the storm.”

No fatalities were reported, Walter said. Two people were injured.  One resident was hurt while cutting a tree when it sprung back and broke his eye socket, so he had to be “Lifestarred.” Another was stung badly by bees at Franklin Academy. “That was one of our worst hit areas,” Walter said. “There were trees down on each side, so we had to hand-carry the patient over the trees to the waiting ambulance.”

He said he is very proud of his employees who came to work during the storm even though town offices were closed, because the land lines still worked.  

“Some of my employees, I now kid that they’re almost doctors and psychologists, because they had to help so many people who were very stressed. They walked a lot of people through how to get services, how to get help, what the town was making available…They were also at the high school, helping to cook, serve, clean up, all these things that were way outside their contracts.”

Goodwill was everywhere. To keep volunteers going, the 7-Eleven convenience store in town prepared trays of sandwiches for them, Shagbark Lumber Company delivered forklifts twice and travelled to Rentschler Field in East Hartford for water, supplies and ready-to-eat-meals needed by townspeople.

Months prior to the storm, knowing Gristmill Market and Village Pizza didn’t have generators, Mansfield also arranged to purchase owners’ food quickly before it spoiled.

“I would much rather (like to) have the ability to buy it locally and at cost, than have to go out somewhere else to get it, which we had to do because they didn’t have enough. We served close to 4,000 in the course of a week.”

Extra food was available from the town’s schools, as they opened four days later than expected. School kitchen staff consolidated food and brought it to the senior center’s freezers and refrigerators. “We’ll reimburse them for it…It just worked out,” Mansfield said.

Calling it a “Godsend,” Mansfield said the senior center’s new generator arrived on the Friday before the storm. “I actually called when we thought the storm was coming up on either Tuesday or Wednesday and they were still waiting for a (fuel tank) part to come in for it. It was a special order.”

Then, Mansfield, who wrote the grant for the generator, received a call from a representative on Thursday of the same week, saying, “Luck is on your side. It showed up. We’ll have it up and running on Friday.”

The newly-installed generator “allowed us to open that building up in the beginning as an informational center, a place for the volunteers to go until we outgrew it,” at which point the operation was moved to the Nathan Hale-Ray High School.

Many other challenges would unfold later.

Emergency radios tested two weeks earlier didn’t work the night before the storm. “It took a lightning strike. That’s what happened.”Mansfield said.  He immediately contacted Emergency Management Expert  Joe Szczech who worked at getting a backup radio “up and running.” Meanwhile, Mansfield drove to Scranton Communications & Electronics in East Hampton, which spent four hours putting together another radio for the town. It was close to midnight by the time Mansfield returned home.

“Just as the storm hit, our generator at the firehouse blew up.  Luckily, we had a generator company right in town, Norpro, that brought us a generator on a trailer and got us fired up again,” Walter said.

“So, a lot of things went wrong during the storm, but we adapted enough with the personnel we had to keep going without anyone noticing that there were challenges ahead of us."

The public works’ generator also stopped working temporarily due to a computer glitch, so they had to override a facet of the fuel pump.

About 140 of the town’s 200-plus roads were blocked with trees on wires. “There were a lot of trees that had not hit the ground, but the tops had spun off and they were just hanging up in the air,” Walter said.

While some people were getting their power back, others were losing theirs. “Branches and trees were still coming down even after the storm. We were still losing wires.”

CL&P (Connecticut Light & Power) was one of their biggest challenges, Mansfield said. “We cleared every tree and road in town that we could that didn’t have wires involved in it. From then on out, we were at their mercy.”

Once CL&P assigned a liaison on Tuesday afternoon, Walter said information started flowing much better to the company.

 “So Craig was pressuring up through emergency management channels and I was pressuring up through political channels to Congressman Courtney and executives at CL&P, so that we could get the attention we needed to put East Haddam on the map toward recovery.”

Townspeople were so frustrated and “fed up” that they couldn’t get in and out of their own roads, they took it upon themselves to cut trees and take wires out of the road, Mansfield said, adding he was not condoning their efforts.  

“We were just very lucky (none of the wires were live). In every one of those messages and updates that we put out, we clearly told people stay away from downed wires.  Don’t touch them. Don’t move them.”

Mansfield, 43, is a member of the Emergency Management Association and Valley Shore Emergency Management Association. In addition to being East Haddam’s part-time emergency management director for the last 6 years, he has been the town’s part-time constable since he was 18.  While growing up in Durham, Mr. Mansfield became a police explorer and later served as an emergency medical technician for a Durham ambulance company from 1986 to 2006, during which time he became chief of the company. Currently, he works full time as security director for Bob’s Stores’ 34 New England locations.

 “You know what? You get into any emergency, you’re always going to have little things (go wrong),” Mansfield said. “But overall, I would surely say that we could not have asked for things to go smoother than they did.”

Walter compared the “overwhelming” days after the storm to Ground Hog Day.  “We were all worn out…you just kept hoping that things would start changing.  It came together and it was great to see the town focused on keeping everyone safe and fed. It worked out great.”

As far as memorable moments, Mansfield said, “The whole week” and “Getting a full night’s sleep when it was over.”

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