Accusations Fly in Blizzard-burdened Brookhaven

Snow plows clear the Long Island Expressway in Suffolk County on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013.
Snow plows clear the Long Island Expressway in Suffolk County on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013.

Residents in pockets of Brookhaven town were still waiting for their streets to be plowed out Tuesday, four days after a blizzard left the town buried under almost three feet of snow. In the mean time tempers have been rising and accusations flying as officials struggled to bring the community back to normal.

“It took them three days to clean the Long Island Expressway, and that’s a straight road,” said Lori Anne Casdia, chief aide to Councilman Dan Panico, Brookhaven Town’s deputy supervisor, attempting to put the massive clean-up problem in perspective. “So you can only imagine what it’s like to do over 2,600 miles of road.” The town, she said, is “larger than the county of Nassau!”

That geography lesson was small comfort to Port Jefferson Station resident Jeffrey Musmacher, who wasn’t able to leave his house until Monday. “I’m putting the blame on the town; I’m putting the blame directly on the leadership of the town,” he tells the Press. “We knew back in the middle of last week. We were prepared. We were ready. I made sure I had everything—apparently the town did nothing!”

The town disputes that observation. According to a spokesman, highway department trucks were getting loaded with sand Friday morning and there was “no problem” with diesel fuel, despite some anecdotal reports to the contrary. The sheer intensity of the blizzard once it struck Friday afternoon, right before rush hour, proved overwhelming.

“A regular pickup truck with a plow is not going to move that much snow,” says Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger, who’s also the deputy mayor of Patchogue. “You’ve got to get the heavy equipment in there.”

The town ended up getting assistance from various New York State agencies as well as some equipment and work crews from the city. Nassau County sent some equipment and Suffolk sent 30 plows and 17 pay-loaders to help Brookhaven, according to a Suffolk spokeswoman.

Adding political fuel to the blizzard response blame game heating up Brookhaven is the pending special election March 5 to elect a new superintendent of highways, which pits town council member Kathy Walsh, who switched her party affiliation from Republican to Independence and will run on the Democratic line, against Assemb. Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham).

Walsh was the acting town supervisor during Super Storm Sandy, after Supervisor Mark Lesko resigned to head Accelerate Long Island, a not-for-profit business lobbying group. The previous highway superintendent John Rouse was elected last November to be a Suffolk County judge. His deputy, Lori Baldassare, a Democrat, was not kept on when Ed Romaine, a Republican former Suffolk legislator, won the Brookhaven supervisor’s race.

When the blizzard struck, Romaine was on vacation in Jamaica and the acting highway superintendent Michael Murphy was on medical leave. Newsday reported it was a “toothache,” and a source in town government told the Press that “nobody heard from him” after Friday morning.

“You’ve got a supervisor who goes on vacation six weeks into the job,” said Ed Lenox, a former Republican committeeman in Brookhaven supporting Walsh in the special election, who was unable to leave his house in Selden for three days. “You’ve got a junior councilman, Dan Panico, who steps up but has no experience at all.”

Brookhaven Republican chairman Jesse Garcia was not alone in defending Romaine’s being away. “The man has not been out of town since his son passed away three years ago,” says Garcia, referring to Keith Romaine, a town council member, who died when he was 36 and had just been re-elected to his second term.

“Residents want service, not rhetoric,” said Garcia. “I’m not going to second-guess their decisions.”

The problem, according to one former public official no longer connected to the town, was not in the highway department, it was the lack of leadership in town hall coupled with the “thought of authorizing millions of dollars in overtime” for weekend work cleaning up the storm. “If you don’t have a signal caller at the top that’s telling people what to do, then people are not going to make their decisions at the lower level because they’re going to be worried.”

Overtime costs didn’t affect the town’s decision making, according to a spokesman.

Walsh, who was the only elected official in town hall Saturday answering the phones at the call center, was frustrated with Brookhaven’s response to the storm.

“What we need is to give our guys what they need, to be honest with the people, and, after this storm, we need to sit down and find out where things fell apart,” she said. “Right now the priority is to get these services out on the road where they need to be.”

“I think the men and women on the street—the folks driving the trucks—obviously worked very hard,” said Losquadro. “But there was a tremendous lack of coordination.”

Based on what he’d been told, he thought the town may have waited until the end of the weekend or the beginning of this week to contact outside contractors. “The town can’t handle something of this magnitude itself,” Losquadro said. “And by the time they reached out, those resources were committed elsewhere.”

On the town’s highway department website, former superintendent Rouse, is credited for revitalizing “the Highway Department’s snow removal program, clearing our roads during the worst winter weather in decades. John significantly increased the number of contractors available for snow removal duty.” Now he’s a judge.

“If he did all that, I would say he didn’t share it with the people who were left behind,” said Walsh. “I just want to let our employees know we appreciate all they’re going through because they’re getting the crap kicked out of them.”

-With Rashed Mian