A Changed Landscape

Should we be back to normal? Not so fast.

Who else feels like they are finally emerging from a fog – having lost nearly two weeks of the year during which regular day-to-day life was interrupted in the attempt to deal with an unprecedented situation?

We missed Halloween. Suddenly it’s the middle of November, and although I usually refuse to acknowledge the commencement of the holiday season until it’s actually Thanksgiving, now that I have TV again it’s hard to ignore the commercials.

West Hartford just went through a very tough stretch. Of course, there are realities to which mere fallen trees and a 10-day power outage would pale in comparison – and we should not even be making the association.

Here in West Hartford, most of us still had roofs over our heads. We had cars to drive around in, at the same time charging our critical electronic devices, assuming we started off with a full tank of gas or could find an open station with fuel available. Our house has a gas fireplace (although we learned that you have to sit right in front when the electric blower can’t be used), a gas stove that we could light with a match, and, thankfully, a gas water heater. We were able to do some cooking, and had the means to eat out at other times. The Newton family “ran on Dunkin’” more times than I can count.

Most of us spent this weekend still trying to clean up our houses and yards, and sharing war stories: Our power was restored at 2:38 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, after having lost it at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29 …  I spent every single night in my dark, unheated home, and showered here every morning, heading out to 8 a.m. meetings with a nearly frozen head of wet hair … The morning after the power was restored, I was thrilled to be able to use my blow dryer and I have never been so happy to do laundry. Sometimes it’s the little things that mean so much.

Which brings me to the point of this piece: throughout this difficult time, many of us learned that what really matters is coming together as a community, helping in ways that may seem small but in reality make a major difference in someone else’s life, and stepping outside of the box to accomplish what needed to be done. This was a crisis in our town, and there are so many who went above and beyond to help others who needed them.

There are many who will continue to need assistance more than ever, as the holidays approach and in the future. Let's not get back to our everyday routines and forget that we can all have a positive impact on others' lives, in ways large and small.

As the editor of West Hartford Patch, I was given an unprecedented opportunity to impact this community throughout the storm’s aftermath. Ever since Patch launched the site almost exactly a year ago, we have promoted the value of a hyper-local news site, tailored to the community of West Hartford. When my 16-year-old daughter actually told me last week that her friends and their parents were relying on Patch for a steady flow of information, I knew we had arrived.

In the storm's aftermath, I literally became an embedded journalist in the Emergency Operations Center for the duration. It wasn’t planned, but when it turned out that Patch was able to provide a valuable means for the Town of West Hartford to communicate with residents, many of whom were starved for information in their powerless homes, town leaders made me welcome in the EOC at the West Hartford police department. I put in more than a few 10-hour stints right in that room. I am personally very thankful to the staff members who made space for me at a desk with an outlet to charge my laptop and phone, and made sure I stopped working long enough to eat something.

The dedication of West Hartford’s town management is unparalleled. I say that as a journalist who is taking this rare opportunity to inject my own opinion, and also as a resident of this town who experienced firsthand the way individuals worked together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the town’s citizens.

I’m sure I will forget some key players, and if I do, please make sure to tell me in the comment section.

First, there is Director of Public Works John Phillips, who is so impassioned about his job that he was literally moved to tears at CL&P’s initial refusal to clean up branches that were not on their own wires. Phillips doesn’t live in West Hartford, but he was working virtually 24/7, and I would guess that his family did not see him for days at a time. He knows what he is doing, is extraordinarily efficient, and was as true a team player as anyone I have ever seen from the moment the snow started to fall around noon on Saturday. He’s still out there every day clearing roads, as well as monitoring the work of AshBritt, the FEMA contractor hired to clean up all the debris that sits like giant brushy snow banks lining many of West Hartford’s streets. Phillips’ signature on his emails contain a quote from the U.S. Navy Seabees, and it exemplifies the way he approaches his public works commitment: "With willing hearts and skillful hands, the difficult we can do at once ... the impossible takes a bit longer."

The other town leaders – Interim Fire Chief Gary Allyn (who was also head of the Emergency Operations Committee), Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, Director of Community Services Rob Rowlson, Director of Human and Leisure Services Jim Capodiece, Police Chief Jim Strillacci, Superintendent of Schools Karen List, Assistant Superintendent for Administration Tom Moore, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Sinsigalli, Public Relations Specialist Renée McCue – and many others from the police department and other organizations met twice daily for more than a week, brainstorming and coordinating services which no one could have anticipated needing just a few short weeks ago. I never heard, “That’s not my job.”

Operation of the shelter, as well as the various warming centers, was something that school and town leaders, as well as elected officials and other volunteers, threw themselves into with the knowledge that they were literally saving lives. The elderly and frail, as well as others who sought shelter first at the Elmwood Community Center and later at Conard High School, know that there are so many unsung heroes who stepped in and set up the shelters, provided meals, administered medications and other treatments, donated clothing and books, and entertained or just provided companionship for shelter residents throughout the duration.

The town’s elected officials from both parties stepped up as well – abandoning campaigns just days before the election to do what they are truly called to do – perform public service to this community. Many Town Council and Board of Education members were present at Emergency Operations meetings (I think Denise Hall was at every one), and council member Shari Cantor even coordinated the operations of the warming center at the Bishops Corner Senior Center. State Sen. Beth Bye spent countless hours at the Conard shelter.

And then there was Mayor Scott Slifka. From the beginning, he was protective of his town – treating the storm as an evil force that threatened his family. One person asked me if I thought his daily emergency update messages were politically motivated. In my opinion, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The mayor is a volunteer, he has a “real” job that he virtually ignored for the duration, he has a wife and three-year-old daughter who hardly saw him for 11 days, and he worked tirelessly to lead West Hartford from a storm-battered, limb-littered town nearly 100 percent without power to a community with power restored that is well on the way to recovery. He did not back down and accept CL&P’s corporate-speak. He stood up for West Hartford, and that’s what our elected officials should do for us.

I also want to take a moment to present a heartfelt thank you to those who contributed and those of you who continue to follow us and read the site every day. It’s appreciated more than you know and is what motivates me to continue doing this job every day. I also want to thank those who truly went above and beyond, doing things outside their normal job and/or comfort zone.

Please, continue to share those stories and your photos with us. Patch is a news site, but it’s also a community bulletin board for users to post events, announcement, and comments about what is happening in West Hartford. We are able to bring you breaking news, in an immediate and easy-to-receive format that can be viewed on your smart phone. We will also publish stories about the arts, high school and youth sports, a neighbor’s good deed, or something happening at your child’s school.

I may be the editor, but this is your West Hartford Patch. If there is something you want to see on the site, please let me know about it.

Beth Ryan November 16, 2011 at 12:24 AM
Nice work Ronni.
Patti Sheehan Albee November 16, 2011 at 01:39 AM
For those of us without cable, the Patch was our only connection with the outside world....we could see what was happening in our town and know that we weren't alone in what was happening. I, too, think that our town officials did a great job with making sure we were aware of what we could do to stay safe, it could not have been easy when mmost were probably worried about their own homes and families. Scott Slifka did an amazing job of letting us know that he was just as frustrated as all of us were with the slow progress. Thanks for all you have done!!
Audrey Byrnett November 16, 2011 at 04:36 AM
Ronni, you deserve the same level of accolades you have imparted on the aforementioned people in your article. You really kept the community informed during a time when many were cut off from the world, and for that we thank you! You're a great editor and journalist, my friend. I'm proud to know you!
Sue Farrell November 16, 2011 at 05:18 AM
Great job West Hartford officials Ronnie throughout this all! It was great to see the community come together at this time! I got all of my updates through the Patch!
Tracey Wilson November 17, 2011 at 09:09 PM
Excellent job Ronni. I want to not two others. 1. Larry Niland who was the tech guy at the police department who kept the map of the town updated. I know that many people looked to our town website to keep updated. 2. High School students stepped up in a big way by staffing Conard's shelter. It was amazing to watch the seniors talk to the teenagers and to see how the seniors appreciated the care and thoughtfulness of these young people. This is just one glimpse of what makes my job as a high school teacher such great work!


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »