Ice storm spurs talk of improved communication

MERRIMACK – In reviewing their response to the many-headed monster that was last month’s ice storm, town officials agreed on at least one thing: Communication with the public could have been better.

The town council met with several key department leaders Monday to discuss emergency response improvements based on the Dec. 11 ice storm, which knocked out power to an estimated 90 percent of the town – in some households for close to two weeks.

“Communication was the biggest thing,” Councilor Tim Tenhave said. “People just didn’t know what was going on.”

The storm cut off nearly all regular ways of transmitting information. In that case, resident Norm Carr argued, the town’s emergency management plan should have kicked in.

“If we’re going to have an emergency management plan, we have to use it,” Carr said. “It’s the only way the community knows what to do.”

Some residents have questioned why the middle school – a designated emergency shelter in the town’s emergency plan – wasn’t opened. Carr and Councilor Mike Malzone touched on that fact Monday night.

“I, as councilman, let people down by not demanding we open the middle school,” Malzone said. “I understand the pecking order of dealing with the Red Cross, but I feel that the red tape bureaucracy should be put aside when dealing with an emergency like this.”

Town Manager Keith Hickey said the American Red Cross identifies emergency locations and staffs them. Because the ice storm disaster was regionwide, the organization picked Nashua South High School. Hickey said he was told that if the storm had centered on Merrimack, the Red Cross would have considered opening a shelter in town.

Assistant Fire Chief Dave Parenti said the plan was followed, other than the shelter opening, and that Fire Chief Mike Currier is rewriting the plan to cover all possible crises in order to meet newer federal requirements.

The group tossed around plenty of ideas for the future, including listing road closures on WMUR Channel 9; investigating a reverse-information phone system so residents could hear updated, recorded messages; developing a clearinghouse for people to volunteer their materials or help; and using the John O’Leary Adult Community Center as a warming center.

Everyone acknowledged that the town’s police, fire and public works departments worked hard during the storm.

Police handled 400 calls for service, including car accidents, downed wires, alarms and road closures, Hickey said. The fire department handled 166 calls in the first 24 hours of the storm, plus 204 additional storm-related calls through Dec. 18. The department of public works cleared the way for utility companies to handle downed wires and poles.

Town staff paid on an hourly basis accumulated 773 hours of overtime, costing just over $31,000, Hickey said. Additional storm-related materials cost $8,000, but that number could go up because generators that operated town buildings will need to be serviced.

The state is holding a meeting for all town officials Wednesday to discuss the paperwork process for Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement funds. Merrimack then has 60 days to compile and submit paperwork. The federal government could reimburse it for up to 75 percent of the total costs, including the overtime and building damage not covered by insurance, with the town kicking in the rest.