December explosion changing New Haven notification plan

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)– An explosion at the New Haven Chlor-Alkali’s Chemical Plant in December is changing how the city of New Haven handles information in emergencies. People in one local neighborhood say the city needs a better, faster way to let residents know when emergencies like that one happen.

New Haven’s Deputy Director of Emergency Operations says he now realizes that silence from emergency officials is not reassuring when there is an earth-shaking explosion

Related: No injuries in New Haven natural gas explosion

On December 22 of last year, Bill Kern was in the office at Accurate Auto Repair on State Street. “I thought an airplane landed on my roof, it was like a big percussion,” is how he remembers it.

Paulette Bellinger was in her house, a few blocks away. “Me and my son was there. Pretty much the whole house shook,” she recalls.

Justice Antrum was asleep in the basement of his home “I thought it was an earthquake, or like a tractor trailer hit something,” he said.

It was actually a natural gas explosion at the Chlor-Alkali chemical plant on Welton Street.

“I mean, I saw about, maybe, 25 squad cars come rolling down State Street and I knew something was going on,” Kern said. “I didn’t know what.”

That’s because emergency officials did not send out a mass notification.

“Our protocol in place at that time said anytime an emergency action needs to be taken, we notify the public immediately,” said Rick Fontana, New Haven’s Deputy Director of Emergency Operations.

Since there was no chemical leak or plume, no injuries, and no threat to public safety, no one needed to take any action.

Trouble is, when you hear and feel an explosion at a nearby chemical plant, hearing nothing from emergency officials is not reassuring. Kinda the opposite. Rumors and social media posts were all people had for a while.

“I didn’t get any notification about what happened,” Bellinger said. “If it wasn’t for you guys, Action 8 News, I wouldn’t have known what happened.”

She would not have known until a mass notification went out six hours later, as was city protocol at the time. Since then, the city has changed that protocol.

“We all agree that good information, early, will help, so we want to get information out,” Fontana said.

The Alder who represents this neighborhood, Anna Festa, will be pushing for more communication at a meeting Tuesday night. Folks who live around the Chlor-Alkili plant will soon get pamphlets with tips specific to chemical emergencies, and everyone is encouraged to sign up for emergency alerts.

“In the event that there is an emergency where information needs to be transmitted, you’ll get that immediately, and again, if there is an issue that we need to just provide information, we’ll do that as well,” Fontana said.

If you want to make your voice heard on this, there is a city Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday night at City Hall. It starts at 6:30 p.m.

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