According to residents on Cherry Tree Lane in Chester, the frightening impact of the so-called superstorm was made worse when they were asked to leave their homes in the middle of the storm and given no guidance where to go.
Chester Borough and Cherry Tree Lane resident Sue Pinto read from a prepared statement at Tuesday’s meeting of the Mayor and Council of Chester Borough, but the story she told was one she didn’t need help remembering. In a voice heavy with emotion, Pinto described her experience with the storm beginning with a visit from the police at 9:45 p.m.
“My son and I were woken by police and told to evacuate immediately due to a possible gas leak,” Pinto said. “We packed in the dark and then my son and my dog and I got in the car.”
According to Pinto she had to drive on her lawn in order to escape her property due to downed trees and as she tried to figure out where to go there was no guidance to be found from officials.
Sue Pinto’s husband Frank Pinto is the Director of the Department of Human Services for Morris County and was working in the County Emergency Management center on Oct. 29.
“I called my husband,” Pinto said. “And with his assistance he was able to guide us out.”
Pinto said she was driving around in the middle of the storm, unable to find help when she came upon her two of her neighbors, one who required oxygen. Pinto came upon two police cars at the Leber Funeral Home on Furnace Road.
“I had to knock on the window for them to roll it down,” Pinto said.
Pinto said the officer from Chester Township was unhelpful in offering guidance on where to go, telling Pinto he wasn’t sure how long the evacuation would be for and that he wasn’t sure how he himself was going to get home.
“He then said we could go to the Shop Rite parking lot or the firehouse,” Pinto said.
According to Pinto, when she arrived at the firehouse the situation did not improve much.
“All of the firemen, EMTs and police officers were there with no one assisting us,” Pinto said.
Pinto said that her neighbors were scattered. Some were at the firehouse, some were in their cars elsewhere and some weren’t evacuated at all.
“The entire road past where the tree fell wasn’t evacuated,” Pinto said.
No food, water or warmth was provided for the displaced residents. But most importantly, there was no communication on when they could expect to return to their homes.
“Finally at 2 a.m. when my son and I had gone out to the car to get warm and try to get some sleep we saw some neighbors exiting the firehouse,” Pinto said. “They said we could go home.”
Richard Leopold’s tale from Cherry Tree Lane began at 10 p.m. when he was ordered to evacuate by a police officer at his door.
“The trees were swaying, the wind was blowing,” Leopold said. “I think the officer was more scared than me. He told me he didn’t know where I should go.”
Leopold said he drove down to the funeral home and waited two hours before heading home.
“I waited until midnight and saw nothing. No police officers, two cones on the street. So I went home. There was never communication from anyone,” Leopold said.
Pinto had several questions for the council that included why there was an evacuation called for without a place for people to be evacuated to and when the mayor and council were informed of the situation.
“I found out at 2 a.m. when I was asked to open a shelter,” Mayor Bob Davis said. “The evacuation was ordered by Chester Township Police, who share some of Cherry Tree Lane with us and our people assisted.”
Councilmember Janet Hoven said she was never informed of the situation officially.
“I found about this anecdotally. I never received any notification from our OEM. I was never told about it. I was not at our last meeting but I read the minutes,” Hoven said. “I am concerned it wasn’t discussed.”
Administrator Valerie Egan said the last meeting OEM Angelo Bolio gave his view on what happened the night of the storm and council member Jennifer Cooper-Napolitano said there was no communication about the issue in the OEM report.
“I also have heard anecdotally but have not heard anything in an official way,” Cooper-Napolitano said.
Frank Pinto said he was not there at the meeting to point fingers, but rather figure out the process and where it broke down.
“I want to thank my wife. It was quite a night,” Frank Pinto said. “This goes more to the response. When an event like that occurs, when were you made aware? The sense I got is if I didn’t call Bob I don’t know when you would have known. It is not my responsibility as a private citizen to inform you.”
Davis said that the storm took its toll on communication across the board and the borough was still recovering.
“We were all in survival mode for about two weeks and now we are in recovery mode,” Davis said. “I met with Bill Cogger and Angelo and our Chief of police to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
For her part, Hoven was apologetic about the situation on behalf of the council.
“I apologize that we didn’t do a better job. I think we should have a discussion among the council members,” Hoven said. “I think the council should see all correspondence about this event because it is disturbing to me.”
The Chester Borough Council planned to look further into the situation before the next council meeting and the Pintos said they planned to speak at the next Chester Township Council meeting.
Both meetings are scheduled for Dec. 18.