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Mahwah Emergency Services Handled Highest Number of Calls Ever During Sandy

A breakdown of the township's emergency response to the hurricane

According to the department heads of Mahwah's emergency service teams - the Mahwah Police Department, Fire Department, Ambulance Corps, Office of Emergency Management, CERT team, and DPW - Hurricane Sandy was one of the most demanding emergencies the township has ever responded to.

According to Police Chief James Batelli, about half of all roads in the township were closed at the peak of the storm. At least twelve streets and six neighborhoods were completely blocked off due to falling debris.

In the seven days during and after the storm, Mahwah police received about 2,750 calls to its 911 and non-emergency call center lines, Batelli said.

“During this time period our 911 calls increased over 300%,” he said. “This is probably the highest sustained volume of calls the Police Department has handled over an extended period.”

In the PD, all leaves were canceled and extra "civilian dispatch personnel" were called to handle the increase in calls, Batelli said.

Assistant Fire Chief Brad Stio said in the first three days after the storm, the fire department responded to over 100 calls in the township. The township’s five fire houses were manned continuously for the fist 48 hours, he said, in order to respond to the high volume.

The FD also sent crews to Moonachie and Little Ferry to assist in swift water rescues. In a six hour period, the crew helped rescue about 30 people, Stio said. An MFD crew also went to Toms River to help recovery efforts after the storm there.

According to OEM Coordinator Ray Roe, the township’s CERT team worked over 300 hours in the days after the storm answering non-emergency calls at the police station, monitoring road closures, guarding downed wires and helping coordinate the emergency response to the storm. CERT crews also assisted at the county shelter set up on Campgaw Road and the warming center opened at Ramapo College.

Co. 1 Ambulance Captain Greg Antonetti said the Ambulance squads went on Stand-by mode the night of the storm. Company 1 had over two full crews camp out at the ambulance building to respond immediately to Sandy calls.

After the storm, about 90 percent of the township was without power, some for as long as 11 days. Crews from all of Mahwah’s emergency services coordinated with the township’s DPW and Orange & Rockland to clear debris, fallen trees and downed power lines throughout Mahwah.

Township personnel helped coordinate the power restoration efforts of Rockland Electric, who brought in crews from Oho Power and Light, Southern California Edison, Georgia Power and Light, Alabama Power and as far as Florida, Michigan, and Minnesota to help restore power. Several times throughout the storm recovery period, the township and mayor expressed displeasure with RE’s response to the storm.

After the storm, in addition to recovery efforts, police responded to “one damaged house which was burglarized and looted, two individuals were arrested for selling gasoline out of the back of the truck for $8 a gallon and officers responded to countless disturbances and fights at gas lines that developed following the storm,” Batelli said.

Now, nearly a month after Sandy hit, each department head is preparing an evaluation of its response to the storm – what was handled well, and what could be done better in a future emergency. Township officials say a “gap analysis” will be conducted to identify any shortcomings in Mahwah’s emergency response plan.

Roe said the OEM office is also preparing to meet with FEMA, and all departments are calculating the exact costs of the massive response.

“We are preparing to turn in our town-wide costs,” he said. However, as post-storm clean-up of brush and debris is still happening, Roe estimated full counts would not be finalized until the end of the year.

On the whole, officials said they were proud of the services and recovery efforts offered to residents before, during and after Sandy hit.

Before the storm, the township offered a free Nixle text message alert system to residents.

According to Mayor Bill Laforet, an analysis of the township's response to Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm last year "indicated that communication with residents is key during emergencies like this." Nixle, he said, was one of the new ways the township tried to keep the residents informed.

According to Batelli, about 3,000 residents are now signed up to receive the alerts. 

The town also to residents preparing for possible flooding during the storm.

During and after the storm, recovery efforts included a charging and warming station at Police Headquarters, donated food and water distribution at the police station, and online storm map where residents could identify problem areas that needed clean-up, a pizza party and Halloween trunk-or-treat for families suffering from cabin fever, and the waiving of Blue Laws and permit fees.

All of the department heads congratulated their teams on their work before, during and after the storm.

“I am extremely proud of the officers who worked during and after the storm,” Batelli said. “Many of them left their own families in their respective houses without power to work and provide services to our residents.”

“I am extremely proud of our guys,” Stio said. “They worked so well together, and were up against a lot during the storm.”

Laforet issued a for helping recovery efforts in the township.

“The community came together in so many different ways to help those in need which makes me proud to serve as the Mayor of such a great town,” he said. “I want to thank the police, fire, ambulance, CERT, OEM, DPW, the volunteers, and the entire governing body who rendered assistance when called upon.”

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