Much of Hoboken is only a few feet above sea level, so the streets would be flooded if a hurricane hit our area directly. Such a hit could bring a 10- to 30-foot storm surge that could climb two stories in Hoboken and put the streets, except near Castle Point, under water.
But Hoboken's municipal government needs to consider other problems. There would be inaccessibe highways and airports, enormous traffic jams, and damage to aging tunnels and bridges. All of this would require an unprecedented response and preparedness.
Not as rare as you might think
According to the New York City Office of Emergency Management, a major hurricane hits the New York City/ Northern New Jersey area about once every 90 years.
The last big one was the 1938 "Long Island Express," which killed hundreds of people and left 63,000 people homeless. Its center came ashore on Long Island, about 75 miles east of New York City.
While hurricanes that make landfall in the northeast are certainly rarer than those that hit Florida, there are several major disadvantages for the New York/New Jersey area.
One thing to consider is the speed of the hurricane. According to New York City's Office of Emergency Management, a hurricane in the north Atlantic moves typically at 34 m.p.h., about triple the speed of a southern storm. So while Florida residents usually have several days to evacuate, the warning period for Hoboken would be much shorter, possibly as little as 24 hours.
Another problem is geography. Weather experts say that because northern Hudson County and New York City are tucked in a bend between the New Jersey and Long Island coastlines, they are at a right angle to incoming storms. That could make the storm surge substantially worse. A Category 2 hurricane could inflict as much damage as a stronger hurricane, say experts.
In fact, a hurricane in 1821 lifted the tide 13 feet in an hour, with the East and Hudson rivers converging over lower Manhattan as far north as Canal Street. Much of New Jersey was also flooded in during that storm. Unlike New Orleans, Hoboken has no land below sea level, but it's fairly close. Portions of Hoboken, especially on the west side, are only about three feet above sea level.
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that Hoboken is located directly across the river from Manhattan, which would be also vulnerable to flooding. Much of the island would have to be evacuated.
According to NYC OEM, if a major hurricane were to hit, three million New Yorkers would be forced to evacuate. Many of those would leave through New Jersey.
With Hoboken being between two tunnels, and a major train hub, the city could be inundated with tens of thousands of New Yorkers leaving the area. Traffic could be gridlocked and trains overcrowded.
Who is in charge?
In the event of a hurricane watch, the city would activate its Emergency Operations Center at the Hoboken Police Department. Operations, locally, would be run by the Office of Emergency Management coordinator, Police Capt. James Fitzsimmons, who holds the title of OEM in addition to job as the department head of internal affairs.
Right now, Hoboken does not have an official who is only assigned to head emergency management. Fitzsimmons is a full-time police captain, and the deputy officer of emergency management, Joel Mestre, is the Zoning Officer and gets no extra pay to do emergency management work.
Roberts announced that within the next month he will approach the City Council to create the Office of Emergency Preparedness. The office will operate under the umbrella of the city's OEM.
According to the deputy officer of emergency management, Joel Mestre, the new office will be a proactive entity charged with preparing for a whole array of different disasters. Mestre, along with the mayor and community leaders, has been meeting to put together the framework for the new office.
In a watch...
In the event of a hurricane watch or warning, police advise that residents should stay tuned to local media for instructions. Stations may engage the Emergency Alert System and suspend regularly scheduled programming. If the city needed to be evacuated, the media and the city's Web site will advise residents of the best routes. The city plans to send representatives to the city's senior buildings, and will establish staging areas around the city to help evacuate those without the ability or means to do so themselves, Mayor David Roberts said. The city has three public senior citizen buildings on the west side of town.
Roberts said that having effective lines of communication not only to the public, but also between city agencies and law enforcement.
Roberts hopes to produce and mail a kit to all Hoboken households that will inform residents of what to do in case of a disaster. It will list important phone numbers, inform residents of evacuation routes, and give tips on how families can prepare for the worst.
Roberts added that it's important to engage the public when it comes to preparation. Roberts wants to form a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to educate people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area, and train them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.
Using the training learned in the classroom and during exercises, CERT members can assist others in their neighborhood or workplace following an event an emergency.
Hoboken community activist Janet Larson has been named by Roberts to be the citizen liaison to the Office of Community Preparedness. For years, Larson has come to council meetings for many years to push officials to be more prepared in case of a disaster, and to keep citizens informed of what measures are taken.
Last year, a citizens' emergency preparedness committee was also formed, although many of those on the committee had other responsibilities in town, and as a result it has not met for some time.
Roberts said that Larson will be active in helping to recruit members of the public from all over the city to volunteer for the CERT program.
One proposal that had been looked at was a citywide Public Announcement system. According to Mestre, there are relatively affordable solar powered systems that could be installed around the city as a way to keep residents informed. Before the 1970s, Hoboken had a PA system.
Roberts said to fund these projects, it is possible that a line item might be added to the next budget, and the city will also begin an aggressive grant writing campaign.
The Office of Emergency Preparedness will also maintain day-to-day communication with law enforcement agencies to ensure that any possible response is coordinated. This is especially important in Hoboken because within a five-mile radius are the Hoboken Police Department, the Port Authority Police, NJ Transit Police, and the New York Police Department.
Mestre said that he and Fitzsimmons have been in constant contact with the NYPD and have contingency plans to coordinate a possible influx of evacuees from Manhattan.
Tropical storms have been on the rise since 1995, and a record 19 hurricanes made their way into the North Atlantic in 1995.