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By Nicholas Loffredo, Wyckoff Patch, 3/15/10

The effects of the weekend's powerful storm are still being felt in Wyckoff, as power outages, downed power lines and uprooted trees continue to pose dangers for residents.

A mobilized Township Committee has been busy coordinating emergency response with the police and fire departments, who have been responding to calls around the clock since Saturday evening. However local officials are largely at the mercy of a force they can't control: the utility company.

Mayor Rudy Boonstra said PSE&G "won't give him an answer" as to when attention may be paid to the township, where two critical facilities—Christian Health Care Center and the Eastern Christian Children's Retreat—are keeping residents warm with backup generators.

Noting the presence of several PSE&G crews in the Ridgewood area today, Boonstra said it's a "tremendous misallocation of resources" on the part of the utility company given the township's population of vulnerable residents, especially those at the aforementioned facilities.

After being told by police Chief Benjamin Fox that a utility crew was working near Cedar Hill Avenue and Cedar Court, the mayor said "one crew is not enough.

"The answer is for PSE&G to get here and repair the problem," he said.

Committeeman Kevin Rooney agrees. "We're very concerned about our residents," he said.

Power is still largely out in the Sicomac section of the township, down Cedar Hill Avenue to the border with Midland Park.

A PSE&G representative could not provide any data on how many residents within the township are still without power, saying the utility does not have town-specific numbers. However, most estimates that have been released publicly, as well as to township officials, say power will be restored by Wednesday, if not Thursday. Additionally, Rockland Electric still shows a handful of residents without power, with Wednesday estimates for restoration, as well.

Karen Johnson, a PSE&G spokesperson, could not provide information as to the planned response in Wyckoff. She said the utility generally first repairs "the equipment that will bring the largest number of customers back at one time," before moving on to restoring individual customers.

"It's a pain-staking process at this point," she said, noting the continued bad weather has been bringing in reports of new outages.

Additionally, PSE&G's president attended a county news conference this afternoon, during which Bergen Executive Dennis McNerney declared a state of emergency.

"This is a near hurricane-like atmosphere, and we're treating it like the major storm it is," he said at the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management in Paramus, with PSE&G President Ralph LaRossa and officials from United Water and Rockland Electric present.

Calling it the "largest event in their service territory," LaRossa credited the 70-mph winds and melting snow for the massive hit to Bergen County power coverage. Currently, 57,000 Bergen County residents remain without electricity.

The emergency declaration enables the county to use public buildings as shelters. Bergen Community College's gymnasium will be utilized for temporary overnight housing. Additionally, the Midland Park senior center will remain open until 10 p.m.

The county also asked all municipalities to estimate preliminary damage and faxed assessment forms so officials may apply for disaster relief funds.

Township hazards

The mayor was particularly concerned about a dangerous situation at the intersection of Holly and Merrywood drives, in the Sicomac section of the township. The storm felled a tree that subsequently took down four phone lines. Police have erected a sign warning residents of live wires at the entrance to the closed Merrywood Drive.

Boonstra said PSE&G have been notified of the situation, which is an obvious danger to any nearby resident or passerby. Yet, the scene remains the same: a tangled web of downed lines blocked by police tape.

"It's an irresponsible situation," Boonstra said.

The residents of the Cedar Hill condominiums, who are predominantly seniors, have been struggling without heat or power since Saturday. Jack Fox, the president of the Cedar Hill Condo Association, said residents among the complex's 98 units have been calling him, but he has no answers. He said he and his wife were able to sleep last night, heavily bundled up, and plan to stay in their home, but he worries about his residents who may not have people to check on them. Among those dealing with the elements is a 95-year-old woman who may need to be evacuated.

Indeed, a chill was in the air inside the condo complex's "clubhouse," where elected officials, police Chief Fox, fire Chief David Murphy and police Lt. Charles Van Dyk met with the condo association's Fox and representatives of the Christian Health Care Center, who offered Jack Fox the use of a room in case the elderly resident needs another place to stay.

Space is available in the township for those residents who may need shelter. Murphy, who also heads the local Office of Emergency Management, said the township has multiple areas that could be used as shelters if the need arises. However, the primary shelter, Eisenhower Middle School, is not an option, as it's also been without heat and power.

Chief Fox urges residents to call the police with any problems related to the storm, and they'll coordinate responses with the Wyckoff Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Fire Department, Department of Public Works, etc. Fox also said the police will provide residents with transportation, if need be.

"We'll work with you," he said.

Douglas Struyk, president and CEO of the Christian Health Care Center, which houses hundreds of elderly and infirm residents, said his facility at Sicomac Road lost power on Saturday but has been operational with the help of three generators. However, the backup power only provides reduced heat and electricity for up to 48 hours when fully gassed. Even with the generators, he said many of the residents are getting anxious, aware that "things aren't the way they're supposed to be."

Chief Fox said at least eight cars within the township have been crushed by trees since Saturday, and Rooney said a tree went down and through a home on Midland Avenue.

"The structural damage was incredible," Rooney said.

Murphy said the Fire Department has responded to more than 60 calls since Saturday. Van Dyk and Fox said the police have not had much of a problem with traffic accidents, despite the presence of several four-way "Stop" signs in lieu of working lights at intersections.

"People are being cautious," Van Dyk said.

Police have been on steady patrol since the storm hit, trying to identify potential hazards and rope off areas with downed power lines. Some "don't know they're exposed and on the ground," and the police can do little to alleviate the situation until PSE&G responds and confirms the wires are without charge, Fox said. Officials warn residents to assume any lines could be live and not to go anywhere near them.

Additionally, while municipalities served by United Water have been issued advisories to boil water before drinking, no such situation exists in Wyckoff, mainly served by Ridgewood Water, Fox said.

The lingering effects of the storm also served to cancel schools today. With Eisenhower out, officials had no choice but to cancel classes for all students. Superintendent Dr. Janet Razze and Administrator Alan Reiffe could not be reached for comment today, although residents signed up to receive the district's Honeywell alerts can expect notification this evening if the district is forced to close the schools again. However, the district no longer has any days built into the annual schedule, so any days missed now will have to be made up at some point.

Additionally, Ramapo High School was dismissed early today due to water pressure problems. Superintendent Dr C. Lauren Schoen also could not be reached, although parents signed up through Honeywell also would receive word at home should the regional district be forced to cancel classes Tuesday.

Boonstra said the township also has been in touch with Sen. Kevin O'Toole's office in an effort to continue to put pressure on PSE&G to get to work in Wyckoff.

Ridgewood Patch Editor Sam Fran Scavuzzo contributed to this report.

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