In a somewhat odd turn of affairs, Hurricane Irene may have provided Mayor Bill Finch with a great deal of political capital as he gears up for a strong challenge from Mary-Jane Foster in the Democratic mayoral primary Sept. 27. Call it the power of incumbency.
As the sitting mayor, Finch was able to use the power of office to demonstrate his leadership ability and, indeed, he was effective during Irene, both before the storm and after. On this issue, Foster was on the outside, looking in.
On Saturday at 4 p.m., Mayor Finch ordered a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas. To inform residents living in these neighborhoods that proved to be the most vulnerable to Irene, the mayor joined a team of 135 fire, police, city officials and other volunteers to go door-to-door. The city of Bridgeport’s door-to-door mandatory evacuation efforts covered approximately 13,000 residents or 4,700 households.
Following what many experts consider to be the largest storm Connecticut has ever seen, the city went to work.
The city’s two shelters, Bassick and Harding high schools, housed nearly 700 evacuees including 18 dogs, two cats and a turtle. On the whole, the city assisted with the delivery of 3,108 meals, 1,500 snacks and 1,172 bottles of water.
In the aftermath, Finch issued a statement praising Park City residents.
“We are very fortunate, Irene could’ve been much worse than what we experienced,” said Finch. “The people of Bridgeport rose to the occasion. We took the warnings of this storm seriously, we acted accordingly and we were able to avoid any major incidents.”
For his role during the hurricane, Finch received praise from several prominent officials. In the aftermath, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited Bridgeport to obtain an up-close look at the damage caused by Irene.
“Bottom-line for Bridgeport: Leadership was performed and produced. Leadership that was matched by the community; the volunteers the Red Cross, community organizations all came through, with the police, fire, emergency responders. It is a great story of people coming together in a common cause and I want to particularly thank Mayor Finch for his leadership at a time of adversity,” said Blumenthal during his visit to the city.
Blumenthal added, “I’ve been all around the state. Bridgeport performance was unexcelled in the way it protected its people and produced leadership for its citizens.”
The storm, which hit at astronomical high tide on Sunday, left Seaside Park and much of the South End under several feet of water after dropping 6.5 inches of rain on the city and clocking top winds of 60 mph at Sikorsky Airport. Despite the severe damage, Seaside Park’s West Beach has re-opened.
Part of the reason Finch emerged from the storm as an effective administrator is that power was returned rather quickly to those city residents who were in the dark. Most Bridgeporters had their lights back within two days after the hurricane.
Gloria de Jesus took refuge from the storm at Bassick High School and offered the following note of thanks:
“My family and I took shelter inside of Bassick High School during Hurricane Irene and the treatment we received was amazing. The process was quick and workers very pleasant, organized when checking in residents’ pets. I’m guessing there were about 450 residents who took refuge, many were bused. During our stay we were given; cots to sleep on (officers and others helped with and movies to watch. The cafeteria remained open and provided meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner and much bottled water. Our youth continually walked around with a cart full of healthy snacks, advising everyone when meals would be served. Volunteers passed out prepared brown bags for those who choose not to walk down the hall and wait in line. … Air-conditioning was provided for seniors and those with medical conditions. School maintenance was busy trying to keep up with the building and stuffed animals were given to the children.
“Father Jerry and Sacred Heart University students arrived and began playing with the children and also served us dinner in the cafeteria. The Father also prayed and blessed rosaries with us. What comfort in the middle of a storm. The American Red Cross team was always smiling, very helpful. Emergency Management worked tirelessly. Despite the terrible weather, Emergency Medical Responders came quickly and provided care to someone in need. Thanking, greeting and respecting our Police Officers have always been a must, now there is great gratitude for the kindness and security they provided. All were friendly, socializing; making sure everyone was okay and continually making rounds. We felt safe. My family and I decided to pitch in and clean the women’s room (how could we not?). All supplies needed were given. The Police Lieutenant visited along with Mayor Finch (visited twice).
“As a graduate (1980) of Bassick High, many memories resurfaced as I walked down the classrooms I once studied in. The gym which I played in, watched sport games with friends and classmates- I now slept in. I now hold new memories. My experience during Hurricane Irene was peace, during the madness outside our walls. I speak not only for myself but family, we are proud to live in Bridgeport, this is our home. Thank you for the great service you all have provided.”
No one is suggesting that the mayor was glad the city took a pounding from Hurricane Irene, but he is doing an excellent job of capitalizing on the situation.