In Royalton, anger over boro’s response to flood

Flooding along Water Street in Royalton. Press And Journal photo by Debra Schell/2011

by Debra Schell / Press And Journal Staff : 10/7/2011

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Six years ago Amy Benner moved from Harrisburg to a home along the Swatara Creek in lower Royalton.

Last month’s flood was her first disaster.

The creek, which flows behind her home, filled the streets with water.

“We were new to this. We had eight people, including an infant, and we didn’t know what to do,” Benner said.

Benner was one of several residents who attended borough council’s meeting last Tuesday to vent frustration about how the disaster was handled by elected officials.

Some 49 of Royalton’s 1,000 residents signed a petition calling on Mayor Robert Stone to resign, saying he didn’t do his job.

“When the water came up, the residents of lower Royalton would like to know where you were?” Gloria Beers of Penn Street asked Stone.

Stone apologized, but said he would not resign unless council asked him to. Council did not ask for his resignation.

Stone said he was ill when the flood hit. He sent his wife to take photographs and report back to him.

“I am sorry. I dropped the ball,” he said.  “I didn’t know what to do.”

Beers said residents needed police protection from gawkers who came to the tiny , flood-ravaged town to see the damage.

The borough’s police department is small, with only part-time officers, and none were scheduled to work the day the waters started to rise, said Stone.

Communications with borough officials were hampered by power outages and downed phone lines, said borough Secretary Bonita Young.

“We handled it the best we could for what we had,” she said.

“It would’ve been nice if we had volunteer fire police helping to keep people out,” said Young. “You just don’t see that anymore, anyone who wants to volunteer, they need training, and it’s a real responsibility.”

Pennsylvania National Guard troops helped keep people away from the Grubb Street Bridge, Young said, but added,  “I would have liked to see them at every intersection on 441, keeping people out.”

Poor communications

In addition to their concerns about security, several residents complained about the lack of information provided about evacuations.

“We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know where to go for water or shelter,” said Carole Biesecker of Shippen Street. “We were trying to deal with removing things without power or gas, we were blind.”

“We didn’t know what roads were closed, or if we could get back,” said Benner. “We didn’t know how bad the outside world was, until we got there.”

She asked what changes the borough will make to ensure that information flows better the next time there is an emergency.

“Our borough should have done something, picked up a phone, anything, to help our residents,” said Beers.

Councilwoman Jodi Flynn said they relied on Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Foreman for information. Foreman serves as EMA coordinator for Royalton and Middletown.

Flynn and her husband Chris, also a member of council, drove through the borough in a police car using a loudspeaker to alert residents of the emergency.

“We are dealing with this for the first time,” said Chris Flynn.

Council members do have emergency training. Elected officials participate in annual emergency drills, including simulated nuclear emergencies at Three Mile Island, Young said. But every emergency is different, she said.

“This was the first time we didn’t have phone lines during a disaster,” Young said.

Officials turned to Facebook during the crisis to update residents.

Flynn wants to spearhead a committee to develop new procedures for the next disaster.

“We did the best we could. You [residents] lived through this, we want to know what we should do for the next time,” said Flynn.

Benner agreed to help the committee.

On a positive note, residents noted that neighbors helped one another during the crisis.

“Our community did come together and we were able to help each other get things out,” said Benner.

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