With zero residents in attendance at the Representative Town Meeting's (RTM) public forum on Westport's handling of the March Nor'easter tonight, town officials and RTM members were left to converse with each other for an hour.

Their discussion swung between self-congratulatory and cautionary tones.

"Westport is not short of people willing to speak up," said Stephen Rubin, R-7, "so the fact that no one's here tonight makes obvious that the uniformed services did an excellent job."

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff agreed with Rubin, but also spoke of the pending hurricane season, the "overdue" winter ice-storm that will eventually hit, and the need for the town, state, utility companies and residents to gird for tempests far worse than this last one.

With near hurricane-strength winds and sustained rain, the storm in early March 2009 took down hundreds of trees, caused millions of dollars in damage and left thousands without electricity for almost a week.

"This was a test run for the state, and fortunately the smallness of the areas affected enabled it to use its resources," Joseloff said. "Hopefully the state has learned some lessons, because we certainly have."

So what, exactly, has Westport learned? And what should residents have learned?

Deputy Fire Chief Jon Gottfried recommended that homes have at least one land-based telephone that is powered solely through the telephone line. Cordless phones and Internet-based phones are useless once the power fails or cable lines go down, Gottfried said. But phone lines are often still fully functioning during heavy storms, and can provide a link to the outside world.

That land-based phone line should also be linked with the town's CodeRed emergency notification system, which the fire department used 14 times between Saturday, March 13, and Wednesday, March 17, Gottfied said. Sign-up information can be found at www.westportct.gov/codered.htm.

The town also learned that all fire vehicles should be equipped with power saws to cut through downed trees and poles -- obstacles that frequently hindered the fire department's response to trouble spots during the storm, according to Gottfried. The department has already purchased power saws for most of its vehicles, he said.

And yet, Gottfried added that the department fears for the belt-tightening of the 2010-11 budget season and how it will hurt the department's ability to handle widespread problems. He did say that the department would rather run its budget into deficit than hold back auxiliary resources that become needed during terrible storms.

Joseloff and Gottfied both said that Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) should not "overpromise" how fast it can restore power to homes. The two officials said they knew as early as Sunday, March 14, that CL&P could not make good on its promise to return power to "99 percent" of Westport homes by Wednesday, March 17. But, they said, town officials were forced to go along with CL&P's public statements.

Joseloff added that residents need to better prepare themselves for these storms. He said residents should plan for handling power outages lasting up to two weeks, for ATM's being down, and for food and supply stores being under-stocked for much longer periods.

"Be prepared," Joseloff said bluntly. "If you're not prepared, as much as we want to get to you, it's physically impossible for us to get to everyone in town."

Added Richard Lowenstein, D-5, RTM public protection committee chair: "People need to have `go bags' ready with water, food and money. When they hear `evacuate,' they need to be ready to go right out the door. And residents should probably have one `go bag' for every family member."