By virtually all counts, Gloucester public works crews, police and Fire Department emergency squads have done an outstanding job over the last three days while restoring a sense of normalcy in the wake of this weekend’s blizzard.
But on one count, city officials dodged an important bullet by simply being more lucky than good.
For the most part, Gloucester was spared the extreme high wind gusts and widespread power outages that hit other parts of the state — the kind of winds that cause extensive home damage, create extended power outages, and drive residents into emergency shelters. But if that had occurred, Gloucester had no place for storm evacuees to go — and that’s an unacceptable public safety situation that city officials must resolve before the next damaging storm rears its head.
The city was, at least, up-front in letting residents know there would be no shelter. The city’s emergency update posted on Friday included that, in fact, Gloucester would not be opening an emergency shelter at Fuller School, which has been the case in the past. And Police Chief Leonard Campanello, who headed up emergency operations during and after the storm and serves as the city’s public information officer during times like these, noted that the city does not seemingly have a suitable facility — one that includes sufficient space, heat, a place for food preparation and/or handling, and sits in an accessible and safe location (see news story, Page 1).
Yet that is largely due to the fact that the city has gone to great lengths to be sure that the Fuller building falls into perhaps an even more ruinous condition than most of it is supposedly in today. For while the city’s pre-school, school administration offices, and the school transportation offices still call Fuller home, the city has turned off the utilities to most of the building, and let the building and its once-impressive auditorium fall to rot — all seemingly as part of a push to force the hands of city residents and state agencies to back construction of a new $30 million West Parish School because Fuller is supposedly unfit to house classrooms or students.
In the process, of course, that has apparently rendered it useless as a shelter as well — a role that Fuller had taken on sporadically, and with admittedly few takers, in recent years.
Gloucester’s lack of an emergency shelter is particularly embarrassing for Cape Ann’s anchor city, given what happened over the weekend in neighboring Rockport.
There, after selectmen voted for and announced a formal stage of emergency, town officials drew in federal support from National Guard crews to assist with damage assessments on Sunday. And that came after more than 70 people were provided temporary help at an American Red Cross-run shelter at Rockport High School Saturday — with about a dozen people spending the night.
Gloucester, as it turned out, did not need that kind of assistance. Yet, what if it did? Where would the Red Cross have set up shop to serve residents literally driven from their homes?
That indeed is a question city officials need to address and answer in the days ahead. A restored Fuller is clearly the best option, and the idea of reviving an emergency shelter and operations center – which also once worked of Fuller, and this time was shifted to Addison Gilbert Hospital — there clearly makes the most sense. But failing that, the city must look to other short-term alternatives, perhaps Gloucester High School, or the Rose Baker Senior Center, both of which would seemingly fit Chief Campanello’s bill.
It may be years before Gloucester ever needs to open a full-service emergency shelter for residents who need it. But that’s hardly the point. When a shelter is needed, it’s needed at a day’s or even moment’s notice. And the city must be prepared for this basic public need.
This time, it wasn’t. The next time, it has to be.