Norwich emergency management director dies unexpectedly
Norwich – City officials and emergency preparedness officials were in shock Monday after learning that Norwich Emergency Management Director Gene Arters died unexpectedly Sunday.
Those who have worked with Arters for decades in preparing for storms, responding to storms, the frequent flooding of the Yantic and Shetucket rivers and major fires that displaced residents, called his death “a great loss for the city” and for the region's emergency preparedness services.
“Gene lived and breathed the emergency management stuff,” Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda said Monday. “He paid very close attention to weather events, like the one we're expecting this evening. He only had the best interest of this community and the safety of this community at heart at all times.”
Arters had designed and helped create the city's new coordinated emergency response center at Norwich Public Utilities headquarters several years ago with Bilda.
Arters, 61, sent an email Friday to city officials – as was his long-standing practice prior to anticipated storms or other emergencies – and several city leaders said they were surprised they did not hear more from Arters about Monday's storm over the weekend.
"We're deeply saddened by the passing of Gene Arters," City Manager John Salomone said. "He dedicated his life to the field and will be sorely missed."
Salomone said while everyone anticipated working with Arters on the current storm, he will ask public safety officials to fill the void of directing emergency services in the interim before naming a new director. The position is technically part time, but Arters "put all his time into it," Salomone said.
"He's going to be hard to replace," Salomone said.
No details were available Monday evening about the cause of death or funeral arrangements. Norwich emergency dispatch said emergency responders were called to his Norwich home at 3 p.m. Sunday for a report of an untimely death.
“The city's in shock,” Norwich Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato said. “We all felt a great deal of admiration and love for Gene. He was really a special guy to the city. … We are standing at the ready to assist both the city and the family. We want to demonstrate our respect to his family.”
Alderwoman and East Great Plain volunteer firefighter Stacy Gould said she has known Arters since she joined the fire department 14 years ago. They became close over the years, Gould said, and Arters would send her email greetings at every holiday, major or minor, wishing her “happy Flag Day” or other occasion.
“He was a consummate gentleman, and he lived and breathed emergency management,” Gould said.
School Superintendent Abby Dolliver worked closely with Arters when renovations to Kelly Middle School several years ago included funding to create a regional emergency shelter with a generator and accommodations for evacuees' pets. A meeting to coordinate use of the regional shelter was planned for Tuesday with Dolliver, Arters and regional emergency management officials.
But Dolliver said her relationship with Arters started long before then, as the two were involved in working on the former Norwich Rose Arts Festival, a major annual summer event on Chelsea Parade before casino concert competition and financial struggles forced it to close.
“He was just a city guy,” Dolliver said. “He was so devoted to making sure everybody was safe during the storms. Everyone was so shocked. He was passionate about his work and making sure everyone was safe.”
Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes also worked with Arters during many emergencies, most notably the April, 26, 2008, fire that destroyed the 120-unit Peachtree apartment complex on the West Side. All residents escaped safely from the rapidly spreading overnight fire, and many Norwich agencies rallied to shuttle the tenants to temporary shelters, find new homes, replace vital documents, clothing and furniture.
“What I admired about him the most was how seriously he took emergency management,” Gomes said. “The rest of us sometimes thought 'it would never happen,' but he did all that he could to prepare us for emergencies that could happen.”
Sue Rochester-Bolin, senior director of emergency services for the Red Cross of Southeastern Connecticut, said she learned of Arters' passing early Monday and had to steel herself to teach classes all day. Rochester-Bolin had worked with Arters since she was a teenager and her mother was emergency services chairwoman for the Red Cross.
“It's heart-breaking,” Rochester-Bolin said. “He was a wonderful man. He was always a friend of the Red Cross. Totally and always 100 percent a friend of the Red Cross. Anything I wanted, he would help. He and I would go at it, but he was there for the Red Cross and was there to make it work and to do whatever he could.
“It's a hard day for everyone in Norwich, and for emergency services in general,” Rochester-Bolin added.