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Residents of N.J. neighborhood helped each other before power restored

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 9:12 a.m. CST

(MCT) — HACKENSACK, N.J.—As the days without power turned into a week — then nearly two weeks — the residents of a dead-end street in West Milford began to feel they were living in a forgotten neighborhood.

With no utility workers around to suggest anyone was looking out for them, the residents of Hilltop Road looked out for one another in the days after Superstorm Sandy. People with generators offered food, power cords and hot showers to their neighbors, while others worked together to clear trees that had fallen onto homes.

And two women brought newborn babies home after residents cut up fallen trees that had blocked their street, clearing a path just wide enough to allow ambulances to get to them.

The neighborhood, which is served by Jersey Central Power & Light, became one of the last in the area after the storm to have power restored when five utility trucks rolled onto the street and workers made repairs around 4:30 p.m. on Monday. Some residents cheered and blew air horns.

One of them, Ed Justin, said the utility trucks, from Met-Ed in Pennsylvania, arrived a couple of hours after he found a foreman scouting a nearby area and told him about the neighborhood’s plight. Met-Ed and JCP&L have the same parent company, FirstEnergy Corp.

Justin said he told the foreman about the two newborns, about a 75-year-old man who had been sleeping in long johns and a sweat suit and covering himself with seven blankets to keep warm at night, and about another man who had been sleeping in his van and kept the engine running for heat.

“He felt what I was saying,” Justin, 51, said of the foreman. “He said, ‘I’ll have a crew come after lunch, I promise you.’Ÿ”

A spokesman for JCP&L, Ron Morano, said on Tuesday that he had no information about the restoration of power to Hilltop Road. He said almost everyone who lost power during Sandy had it restored by Monday night, including 117 West Milford customers who had power restored Monday morning. He said crews were working to restore power to a small number of individual homes on Tuesday.

West Milford Mayor, Bettina Bieri has complained that some of the township’s JCP&L customers have been “treated like second-class citizens.” Township officials have said they are considering contracting with other utility companies and will discuss the matter at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

Emily Sagle, 30, said she went into premature labor — induced by stress, her doctors told her — on Oct. 29, the night Sandy made landfall. A 120-foot oak tree fell onto her roof and into her kitchen while she, her husband and their 13-month-old son were in the basement for safety, she said. Neighbors used chainsaws to carve an oak tree that had fallen onto the road, cutting off access.

“It was hell,” Sagle said, adding that she was afraid she was going to give birth at home with no way to get to the hospital. She said the storm brought out the best in her neighbors, but their acts of kindness did not surprise her.

“At times like this, you see the best and worst in people,” she said. “We saw the best.”

She said she asked her husband to stay home with their son before she was taken by ambulance to Chilton Hospital. She said she went home after physicians prevented a premature birth. A little more than a week later, during the Nov. 7 nor’easter, her husband drove her to St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Paterson, where she gave birth to an 8-pound-11-ounce boy, William.

“The joke was that this baby wanted to be born during a storm,” she said.

Sagle brought her baby home Sunday to a neighborhood where residents said they had become accustomed to the steady hum of generators at night. She said she had hot water, a wood stove heated her house, and a generator provided power for some lights.

Sagle said she called JCP&L on Monday morning and was told power would not be restored until Friday.

Morano said he was not aware of anyone from JCP&L giving customers that date as an estimate for power restoration. He said residents in the last areas without power were told they would have it by Monday night.

Another Hilltop Road resident, Frank Leitgeb, 75, said he slept in his van because it was more comfortable than his cold house, and kept the engine running to have heat. He said he watched classic movies on a TV in his van and ate at local restaurants. He went to sleep after reclining the driver’s seat, but was unable to fully stretch out his 6-foot-6-inch frame.

“It was starting to get irritable,” Leitgeb, a former truck driver, said of the experience.

He said he declined offers from neighbors to stay in their generator-powered homes and did not want to go to the township’s emergency shelter because he preferred to take care of himself. He said some of his relatives fared worse, losing homes at the Shore.

Frank Stevens, 75, said he didn’t have a generator but he had a neighbor who did. Bob Szuszkowski invited Stevens over for breakfast, lunch and dinner and to stay warm during the evenings.

Szuszkowski ran an extension cord to Stevens’ house that powered a light, allowing him to read. But it didn’t provide enough power for a space heater, so he bundled up in a hooded sweat suit when he went to bed and slept under every blanket that he owned, he said.

“I was actually able to sleep OK,” Stevens said. But he said it became too cold in his house last week, so he stayed with friends in Little Falls.

Szuszkowski, 47, said he had kept his generator in a tent that was damaged after Sandy began, so he ran outside to move it into a shed as the wind howled and trees crashed nearby. Part of the tree that fell into Sagle’s house cracked his bedroom window, he said. The next day, he and his neighbors inspected the damage.

“It looked like a bomb had gone off,” he said.

He said he helped the Sagles’ cut up the tree that fell onto their house and remove it piece by piece. Neighbors chopped up another tree that had fallen onto the road overnight, once again blocking access to the neighborhood. Hours later, another woman was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where she gave birth to a boy, Szuszkowski said. That woman brought her baby home several days ago, he said.

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