Just months after the damaging Aug. 8 flood, Monday’s unseasonable storm once again wreaked havoc on Needham. As these powerful weather events become more frequent, the town continues to triage damage and determine new courses of action.
Although the rain brought some flooding in lower locations, the greater concern quickly became the heavy winds that lasted the majority of the day, downing trees, blowing debris, crippling major roads and cutting power to more than 800 residences.
“Obstruction of roads and [downed] wires were the biggest issue,” said Carys Lustig, director of public works. “The winds were much more severe, with gusts and more trees down than we’d thought based on predictions. We thought it was going to hit more to the west.”
The widespread damage, which made many roads impassable, prompted school Superintendent Dan Gutekanst to keep students for an extra hour. This was the first time in his 18-year tenure that Gutekanst has had to make the call to keep students beyond the school day.
“There was a wire down by High Rock on Sylvan, which was one of the reasons we talked with the school department to postpone pickup,” said Lustig.
During any significant weather event, town departments are in constant communication. Based on reports from police, fire, the town manager’s office and the DPW, the decision to hold students for an extra hour was made around 1:30 that afternoon.
“I wandered out as well during late morning and saw for myself where trees were down, where limbs were down, where power lines were down, where streets were flooding,” said Gutekanst. “It seemed to me to have the little guys walk home from school or to have buses attempt to leave at the regular time and families to pick up at the regular time was going to result in gridlock or something worse.”
Gutekanst relies heavily on input from appropriate town entities as well as the district’s meteorologist at the National Weather Service. But ultimately, he said, he likes to see the conditions for himself before making the call.
Monday’s decision was unprecedented, he said. “I’m always sensitive to disrupting the schedule for students and staff and families because I know it’s not an easy thing to do to adjust schedules and appointments and working life. It’s not something I take lightly.”
None of it went perfectly and there were definitely glitches, said Gutekanst, including many families not receiving the various communications that were sent to inform them of the change.
“It was an inconvenience for some families,” he said. “But at least we knew where the kids were. It was a different kind of call for a different kind of day for sure. I’m glad we did it. I hope we don’t have to repeat it.”
Justin McCullen, head of global emergency management at Novartis and a member of Needham’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, said that although police, fire and DPW responded well, the town’s communication throughout the event and in its aftermath left a lot of room for improvement. Many residents relied on Needham Police social media updates, which were reposted with no new information on the town’s Facebook page. He also indicated that there were gaps in staffing that significantly contributed to the response and ability to mobilize aid. Tim McDonald, director of public health, was home sick and Michael Lethin, former emergency management administrator for the town, recently left his position for another job.
“It was a perfect storm event that was exacerbated because Tim was out and Michael Lethin was gone,” said McCullen. “Our response was less than ideal.”
He indicated the storm itself presented unique challenges, such as uprooting entire power line poles, which complicated many aspects of the aftermath response. As with all emergency events, however, officials will debrief and discuss what went well and where changes can be made in the future.
“The LEPC’s job is to evaluate responses and look for opportunities for improvement and implement those,” he said. “We are going to review what we did right and look at opportunities for what we can do better and integrate that into our procedures going forward.”
Many residents were concerned for the more vulnerable members of the population who were without power and possibly unable to leave their homes due to blocked roads. Amy Haelson, director of communications and community engagement, said the town did wellness checks for and outreach to clients of the Council on Aging, but overall received few phone calls from residents seeking assistance.
Although the town did not open shelters, Haelsen said it “did make available the library and the CATH [Center at the Heights] for residents who sought a place to keep warm, charge their phones, etc.”
As of Wednesday morning, some 300 residents were still without power and South Street was blocked, stranding homeowners. By end of day, the number of residents without power was down 22.
Lustig said police continue to work with Eversource to coordinate outages and open roads. Crews will also do a thorough street cleaning to clear any debris left by the wind and rain. Residents can report any damage on the town’s SeeClickFix site.