Sparta battles back from extensive storm damage - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Sparta battles back from extensive storm damage

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Photo by Tracy Klimek/New Jersey Herald The press box and bleachers at Sparta High School, damaged by Sandy, were replaced as of Sept. 21 for $477,009. Photo by Tracy Klimek/New Jersey Herald The press box and bleachers at Sparta High School, damaged by Sandy, were replaced as of Sept. 21 for $477,009.
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By JESSICA MASULLI REYES

jmasulli@njherald.com

SPARTA — Traveling through Sparta the day after Hurricane Sandy was like going through a maze. Each way you turned, there were downed trees and power lines, causing most of the township to be gridlocked and in the dark.

The power outages forced schools to close and canceled Halloween festivities; about 15 families were displaced from their damaged homes, and at the height 30 roads were closed.

A year later, the township has returned to normal. The giant debris pile at the Department of Public Works has been cleared, the displaced residents are back home, and the damaged press box at Cassels Field was replaced in time for football season.

From the storm, Sparta has also gained valuable lessons. Councilwoman Christine Quinn, who has headed up the Sparta Township Emergency Preparedness (STEP) initiative with Police Chief Ernest Reigstad, said the township has taken several steps since the hurricane to be

more prepared in time for October.

“We always get nervous in October,” she said. “We have seen that October the past few years has consistently been bad.”

While much of that preparedness work has not been needed yet this October, it is in place to ensure that if and when the next storm hits, the township will run smoother.

“The one thing Sandy gave us was a big wake-up call,” Quinn said.

Getting ready now

In January, the emergency preparedness initiative began by establishing a steering committee to oversee the Public Safety Committee and the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

“It’s not a good time to plan your emergency evacuation route while your house is burning down,” Quinn said. “You need to know the plan before the fire starts. That is the crux of how this whole thing came about.”

CERT is a corps of citizen volunteers who are capable of providing critical assistance and backup support in the event of a major disaster. It is partially funded by federal money.

“The idea of it is to have them take up tasks so that you can free up the police, firefighters and emergency personnel,” Reigstad said, adding that these individuals are trained in doing an initial “windshield damage assessment” after a storm to let the Federal Emergency Management Agency know what funds and help are needed.

During Hurricane Sandy, Hopatcong was the only municipality, along with the county CERT team, to have a team in place. Quinn, seeing the value of the team, brought the idea to the Sparta Township Council in January.

As of this fall, Sparta’s CERT has trained 15 members who have completed 22 hours of training. Alex Kloian was named the township’s coordinator. Anyone interested in applying to become a member can visit spartanj.org and click the Sparta Township Emergency Preparedness link.

“When you have an emergency there is always people who want to help,” Reigstad said. “But we want help in an organized manner. We want them to help without becoming victims themselves.”

Also under the emergency preparedness initiative, the township is putting together a newsletter and looking at different communication tools. Quinn said that after Hurricane Sandy it became clear that the usual communication mediums, like television and Internet, were not readily accessible to Sparta residents without power.

She is encouraging residents to sign up on the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office page for the reverse 9-1-1 calls to get updates during an emergency. She said billboards and portable signs are also being secured.

“The biggest thing about the entire STEP initiative is about giving people information before something happens,” she said.

Mayor Gil Gibbs said Jersey Central Power & Light, the power company that serves the entire township, has also stepped up its communication efforts. He said a new regional manager has been assigned to Sparta and has provided greater communication via phone.

“I think JCP&L learned an awful lot, which is very, very critical,” he said.

The STEP initiative has also created graphics that will be placed on buildings considered to be a Go2Center. These centers, like the library, will be shelters where residents can visit in a disaster to get information, or to have access to air conditioning/heat, power outlets and WiFi. A generator will soon be installed at the library so that it can be a Go2Center even if the power goes out, Gibbs said.

In time for football season

Hurricane Sandy also hit the Sparta Public School District hard. Like other school districts in the area, it was closed for a week because of power outages and the inability of children to get to school.

Linda Alvarez, school business administrator/board secretary, said the storm damaged the press box at Cassels Field, the Sparta High School football field, as well as storage sheds at Alpine School and soccer goals and portable bleachers at the high school.

The press box and bleachers at the high school were replaced as of Sept. 21 for $477,009, Alvarez said. The school also lost $3,913 in spoiled food from the power outages.

Alvarez said the district has to “front” the costs of replacement before insurance will reimburse it for expenses, but the amount of reimbursements is not yet finalized. The district is working with FEMA for reimbursement of expenses not covered by insurance.

The school also qualified for a $90,000 FEMA reimbursement for debris cleanup and removal, but has received only $28,000 so far. The district is continuing to submit documents to FEMA to get the additional reimbursements.

The staff was able to do all the cleanup work, but staff members could not perform their normal duties during this time. The cost also included the purchase of two chain saws, a generator and diesel gas; disposal of debris; and miscellaneous other small costs, Alvarez said.

Alvarez said the school district has also applied to the state Department of Education for its Office of School Facilities’ Regular Operating District grant for $113,000. If approved for the grant, the district is expected to pay about 35 percent to 40 percent out of its own budget. This would be for electrical phase protection so that if one phase of the power supplied to the building goes down, it protects the equipment in the building from brownouts and power surges.

Sparta Township has also received some reimbursements from FEMA for overtime for Department of Public Works workers, as well as tree and debris disposal. The township spent about $400,000 on the cleanup and expects that FEMA will pay 75 percent, Gibbs said. Any property damage the township sustained was covered by insurance.

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