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New Canaan's Michael Handler -- the man behind the voice that called twice a day

Updated 9:19 am, Saturday, November 10, 2012

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  • OEM Director Mike Handler at work in the EOC on Nov. 2. Photo: Tyler Woods
    OEM Director Mike Handler at work in the EOC on Nov. 2. Photo: Tyler Woods

 

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His voice is familiar to many in New Canaan, especially over the last two weeks, but Michael Handler has quietly gone about doing his job manning the Emergency Operation Center and helping keep residents safe during and after one of the worst events to hit the town.

Handler, who is New Canaan's director of emergency management, is the man who has called residents and business owners multiple times a day with status updates before, during and after Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast on Monday, Oct. 29, and left a path of destruction.

In New Canaan, a majority of households were without power in Sandy's wake, and roads were littered with fallen trees, downed wires and debris.

Connecticut Light & Power Co. and other crews continued to work into this week on restoration efforts.

For Handler, all of that meant he has lived at the EOC, which is set up at police headquarters, coordinating the efforts and keeping the town informed.

Though he hesitates to talk about how much he has worked during the week of the storm, he was a constant figure at the center. Monday afternoon was the first time in a week he was able to return to his house -- and that was because he needed to get food for his dog.

"I have not gone home," he said in rare break from his tasks. "I've been living at the police station. We have cots. I'd be lying if I said I got a lot of sleep.

"There hasn't been a night without a dozen phone calls, but I'm not complaining."

Handler, a single father who took off several years from his career to raise his two young daughters, said, "My neighbors are taking care of my daughters and my dog. It's challenging not seeing your family, but this is your job."

He has worked most his life in the financial sector, for such giants in the industry as Goldman Sachs, SAC Capital and Jeffries and Co. He has been an emergency medical services volunteer in New Canaan for more than 12 years.

Handler is also the director of administration for Stamford, the city's top financial position.

Because he has been involved with New Canaan emergency relief for the past 10 years and director for two, he has an agreement with Stamford Mayor Michael Pavia that during weather emergencies, he leaves for New Canaan and serves here for the duration of the crisis.

"I happen to work for two great leaders," Handler said of Pavia and New Canaan First Selectman Rob Mallozzi. "(Pavia) knew when I took the job that I have a commitment I wouldn't walk away from in New Canaan. I think Pavia would say it's better having me (here). We've shared best practices with Stamford. It works well. If there was a storm a month, maybe it wouldn't."

"I am committed to the town of New Canaan until it's back to normal function or until we have a plan to get us back in very short order," he said.

New Canaan has returned to normalcy, for the most part -- as of Wednesday, less than 1 percent of CL&P customers in town were without power, schools and Town Hall reopened, and businesses are humming.

But this weekend, Handler said, a lot of storm debris still would need to be removed.

He was also worried about the nor'easter that hit on Wednesday and Thursday with rain, high winds, coastal flooding and snow.

In that case, Handler said, some of the broken branches hanging from trees since Sandy were likely to come down.

"If that happens, there would be some more outages," he said. "I have (spoken) with CL&P to see if they can keep some crews in town."

With temperatures dipping into the high 20s and low 30s during the week, Handler also was concerned about the elderly.

"If there's a senior living at home, sitting, waiting for power to come on, and it becomes cold, then I'm worried about hypothermia. Those are the concerns I have now. If we can get through storm with this just inconvenience (to people's lives), I'll be very satisfied with that," he said.

"One thing that I'd ask is that if (residents) know of people they're concerned about, to go and check on them."

As he considered what has transpired since Hurricane Sandy, Handler pointed to the difficulties families face when their loved ones put in so much time helping rebuild the town.

"The people I want to thank the most are the families and loved ones of the people in the EOC for letting them do this. It's very easy to thank the volunteers, the police, but for families, it's a lot to ask," he said.

One of his challenges, he said, has been dealing with CL&P.

"Those are the things that frustrate me. We are self-sufficient in every aspect except for power restoration," he said.

As for what motivates him to put in the kind of effort he does, Handler said, "It's very empowering to work with people who only have one motive, which is to get power back. That's really why I do it. The schools have been remarkable, the YMCA, every aspect of the community."

"It's about the people -- people lending generators to people who don't have them, people cooking food and bringing it to workers. I got an email from a ninth-grader asking how to help in the future."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; https://twitter.com/Woods_NCNews