Ventnor residents bundled up Thursday to attend the first Board of Commissioners meeting since Hurricane Sandy struck last week — there was no heat in City Hall.
The building on Atlantic Avenue was just one of the city structures to be affected by the storm, the resulting flooding or the lack of electricity for several days following the Oct. 29 landfall.
Residents were not allowed back onto the barrier island until last Friday — five days after a mandatory evacuation — due to problems with the city sewage system. At the meeting, while some expressed frustrations, others commended city workers for their work during and after the storm.
Pat Johnston criticized the lack of “transparency” from city officials as to why she was not let back into her house on North Cambridge Avenue sooner — there was an electrical problem, it turned out — and said that people on her street said they found fecal matter in their houses.
Mayor Mike Bagnell said that the sewage system never overflowed into the streets — it was the threat that it might happen that led to the delay in opening up the city. He added that if there was fecal matter in homes, it was overflow from the homes’ internal systems or other things they mistook for fecal matter.
“People’s minds play tricks on them, especially when they’re under duress,” he said.
Bagnell said that the overall problem “had nothing to do with the sewer system itself.” The system was put at risk by four instances happening simultaneously.
He said those four instances were: Baywater flooded homes from the bay to Ventnor Avenue, filling the system “to the brink” and overwhelming it; the water became so high that one of three fuses shorted at the Public Works building; a water main broke at Newport and Winchester Avenues, sending water into a manhole; and there was a blockage a few blocks away at Newark Avenue.
Even after the latter two problems were fixed, the city waited until a replacement fuse was flown in from North Carolina and picked up at Mount Holly before reopening the city, Bagnell said.
“If we let people back in, it would have been totally irresponsible,” Bagnell said. He added later that if a similar event is scheduled to strike the area or hit farther south than Sandy, bringing greater storm surges to the system’s north, he would order a complete evacuation, including emergency workers.
Rand Snyderman, who said he lives at North Nashville Avenue — “or what’s left (of) North Nashville Avenue” — said that he wanted to commend the commissioners and all public employees who worked during the storm.
“I stayed,” Snyderman said. “I will not stay again. For those who say they will stay next time because they’re not getting back into the city when they want to? Be my guest. We sat in six feet of water in our ground floor and were afraid our house would blow down. We’ll not stay again.”
Jim Peterson also had kind words for city workers, saying that “these guys here need to get applause, not get ripped by everyone. … This is the worst storm we’ve ever had, and I think the city did a heck of a job.”
Lee Sirota, a North Wyoming Avenue resident — “unless I start swimming away soon” — was critical that there had been no new infrastructure work started since Bagnell and Commissioner Frank Sarno took office in May.
“Right now, what we’re doing is we’re cleaning up and completing all of the work started previously,” said Theresa Kelly, the only commissioner left over from the past administration.
“The ‘why’ is easy,” said Bagnell. “We don’t have the money.”
Sirota, who later apologized if she was overly emotional — she had a heart operation last week, after the storm — said that she was angry because she has been going to meetings for decades and remembers past decisions.
“We have a $9 million library, when that money should have gone underground,” Sirota said. “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig.”
Sirota came up again to implore that “we must, must repair our infrastructure. We are in a new climatic (era). Things are happening quicker and worse each time. We have to be prepared. We live on a barrier island. Things were let go for so many years. It’s a shame.”
Bagnell agreed, saying the problem goes back decades and the city would “do whatever we can” to make up for lost time. He also cited the numerous weather events over the last few years, ranging from the June derecho storm to Hurricane Irene to the 2011 earthquake.
“If a volcano forms in the sand flats,” he half-joked, “I’m resigning.”
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