Disaster Zone

Notes From Newtown and Sandy Hook -- Community Impacts

These are notes from someone who went back two weeks after the event.

by Eric Holdeman / April 29, 2013

Observations from Sandy Hook


Note:  It was not a school shooting, it was a shooting at a school


The following are notes I took during a lecture by Mary Schoenfeldt at the 2013, Partners in Emergency Preparedness Conference.  She spent two weeks in the community after the shooting incident.


Since she was addressing an audience of emergency managers she did not specifically address in depth the school system impact or the impact on families.  Instead, she looked at the community response and impact.


Newtown is a wonderful historic town with a population of around 30,000.  It is the larger city and Sandy Hook is a town close, about a mile away.  This is an affluent community with the average age being 40.  It is about 1.5 hours from Manhattan by train and another hour by car to the state capitol.


They experienced 28 deaths in their community.  Everyone there knew someone who was impacted by the event. 


One of the huge impacts to the community was to the small businesses in town.  There was so much gridlock with traffic that people were not running errands and spending money.  Basically, media and visitors shut down the town.  There were national television shows like Dr. Phil that showed up and were doing shows on-site. 


The businesses that suffered included grocery stores, book stores, pharmacy, the dance studio, gas stations, newspaper, cleaners, veterinarians.  There were some financial grants that came afterwards that helped.


There were significant work productivity impacts across the community as everyone dealt with their grief. 


They had 21 funerals in one week.  18 volunteer funeral directors came to help from their state association.  They also sent a media consultant to provide technical expertise.


There was a massive law enforcement effort.  Multiple Federal agencies responded.  There were many volunteers who came to help.  Some invited, many not invited.


Interesting statistic, 50% of responders who respond to an event like this are no longer in the same profession 3-5 years later.


They had $7.5M donated in four weeks.  60,000 teddy bears were delivered to the city.


The challenges included:  donations; volunteers; memorials; gridlock’ economics; city government.


The impacts included:  Library (therapy miniature horses were centered there); police; fire; EMS; Parks; legal; IT; Transit; Senior Citizen Center; switchboard; neighbors; mailroom and public works.


The Chief of Police was getting 6,000-8,000 emails a day.


Volunteer Coordination involved the post Office, Newtown Youth & Family Services, Adventist Community Services, Department of Health & Human Services.


There was a Blue Colony Dinner just off the freeway and outside of town.  It was there across the street on empty commercial property that a defacto memorial sprang up.  Having this away from the town helped immensely with keeping even more traffic from entering the city.


There were intentional and unintentional memorials.  They grew and grew and grew.  The memorials themselves contributed greatly to the gridlock.  After two weeks they decided to take down all those on the public right of way.  They did it at night and doing so was a polarizing issue for some in the community.  They did no pre-messaging so it came as a surprise to most people.  What they did do was take the bio material and started to compost it in a special pile to save it for a future long-term memorial site.


One important item on the school reunification site.  It was only two blocks away from the school which made it too close. 


The town’s emergency management did activate their emergency operations center (EOC), but probably deactivated too early.  One of the key roles to be done was volunteer management.  There was also logistics to coordinate, things such as portable morgues and cell on wheels (COW) to provide additional capacity for wireless coverage.  There was no evidence that there was an attempt to establish a Joint Information Center (JIC) or Joint Information System (JIS).


For many of the first responders who came, there was nothing to do.


It was noted that the medical examiner for the town was giving out too much detail, such as the condition of the bodies. 


At the school itself it is important to remember that key staff were killed in the shooting.  The Principal knew the plan, but who was her back-up?  A paper copy of the plan needs to be kept at your reunification site.


Following the shooting the decision was made to move students to another school to finish the year.  They have not made a decision as to what to do with the building where the shooting occurred.  In moving the classrooms they went into every classroom and took pictures of the rooms, the wall colors, bulletin boards, and each student’s desk.  They then moved the school at night and recreated the classrooms as closely as possible in the new building.


A much loved and long serving Principal of the school who had just retired the year before came back and greeted students as they came off the busses and is serving out the remainder of the school year.


There was a circle of support that came around the families impacted by the shooting.  They did shopping for them and when they were ready took them shopping 30 miles away where no one would know them to give them time to adjust and for the community to adjust.  Figuring out what to do with all the money and other donations given in the name of a child is an issue. 


One story not being told is that there were 475 survivors at the school.