“Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?”
In many ways the Homeland Security alert system that was supposed to notify residents in the event of a terroristic or natural emergency was very reminiscent of an old cellular telephone commercial that depicted poor reception depending upon where a user stood.
In this case, the alert system that was supposed to reach people who might not otherwise have access to other means of communication failed miserably. Towers with supposedly self supporting power systems failed to go off, and thus failed to alert residents that they could tune into a special radio station where they would be updated on what to do in dealing with the emergency.
The sirens were installed three years ago throughout Hudson County as a backup warning system in case other means of alerting residents to a pending emergency failed. Very similar to the sirens used as part of civil defense after World War II to warn of a pending nuclear attack, they were heard all over the county by numerous residents.
When installing the siren system in 2009, Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff, in his role as the planner for the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, said the new emergency sirens would be activated in the event of a catastrophic emergency when residents needed to receive critical information.
In most cases, the sirens were supposed to have told residents to tune into the county AM radio station, which would provide them with critical breaking information.
During Superstorm Sandy, however, power to the towers failed, according to a report given to the Freeholders by the County Office of Emergency Management just prior to Thanksgiving.
But even if the towers had worked and people had tuned into the 1710 station on their AM radios, they would have received very little useful information other than what they might have received any time during the year, since no one was updating the information.
“It was all generic information,” said Freeholder Bill O’Dea.
With power outages and flooding throughout the county, emergency information changed minute to minute, O’Dea said, and while people could turn to New York media to get overall information, for the large part these provided very little up-to-date information about what was going on in Hudson County, such as where people could seek shelter, heat, or food from temporary kitchens, as well as other vital information.
As significant as the lack of information was, there was a significant inability for residents to actually pick up the station on their portable radios – a critical piece in the emergency network system since officials when proposing this aspect believed that many people without power would still have battery operated radios.
Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise said while the station exists, it has been approved for a very low broadcast output.
“It doesn’t reach every part of the county,” he said, noting that he and others have lobbied the Federal Communications Commission for an increase. “But it seems that if you increase it on one station, you take away from another.”
O’Dea, however, said that people can pick up the station on their car radios and that from what he could determine, the radio station does reach extreme points in the county.
“I drove deep into Bayonne where the windmill is and then into south Kearny and to other parts of Jersey City and I could still pick up the transmission,” O’Dea said. “Car radios for some reason can pick up the station, but not small battery-operated radios. But a not-fully functional station is better than no station and someone should have been updating the information for people. But no one ever changed the message to tell people what they could do, where they could go and what kind of services were available.”
“Car radios for some reason can pick up the station, but not small battery-operated radios.” – Freeholder Bill O’Dea
A county vehicle used for dealing with weapons of mass destruction, purchased two years ago for $850,000, was destroyed after being moved from high ground at the County Plaza building to the future home of the Office of Emergency Management in Kearny prior to Hurricane Sandy.
The Hudson County Freeholders were informed this week that the vehicle was moved to Building 77 in order to allow election workers to access voting machines ahead of the Nov. 6 elections.
The report to the county said although the site was safe for storm surges up to 10 feet, Sandy cast waves over the wall and into the building, destroying the vehicle.
Officials said that some of the equipment aboard the vehicle may be salvaged, but that the vehicle itself was corroded beyond repair.
“It should never have been moved there,” said Freeholder Anthony Romano.
O’Dea said county workers realized the vehicle was in danger and made an effort to move it again, but could not reach the site because of rising water.
The vehicle had been purchased using federal Homeland Security Funds.
The county suffered about $7.7 million in total damage to its buildings and other facilities, and more than $2 million to 62 vehicles – more than half of which belonged to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s office.
“These were stored down at the Duncan Avenue garage,” O’Dea said.
Trailers needed to replace those lost in storm
At a recent meeting, the freeholders also authorized the Hudson County Correctional Facility to spend $675,000 to purchase new and used trailers to replace those destroyed in the superstorm.
Correctional Facility Director Oscar Aviles said that the trailers are needed to house work release personnel and maintenance workers.
O’Dea, who was instrumental in changing a previous contract for vehicles to allow the county to purchase from a Secaucus firm rather than a firm out of the count, and for less money, asked if the trailers could be purchased locally.
A legal opinion said the normal procurement process would take months and could not likely be done under the state of emergency and that the $675,000 was already pre-bid by the state allowing the county to move ahead more quickly.
The trailers, Aviles said, would provide additional security against possible smuggling of contraband into the jail.