The unique geography of mile-square Hoboken caused thousands of residents to be trapped by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy, resulting in a need for unprecedented actions from city officials. Last week, Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who had been featured on the national news since the storm hit, asked the National Guard to stay in town through the middle of the week as another major storm soaked the area.
The flood-prone city houses well over 50,000 residents in everything from rows of old brownstones to high rises. The town’s low elevation coupled with the proximity to the Hudson River has traditionally caused flooding, especially near the low-lying southwest section of town.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer explained on Wednesday how national attention and a 20-person conference call with President Barack Obama helped to get power back for some Hoboken residents.
Zimmer said that the city had held three or more planning meetings per day during the crisis, which began on Monday, Oct. 29 when Sandy made landfall on the Jersey Shore. Weather forecasters had predicted a major storm for five days before that. Zimmer and Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy evacuated the first floor of low-lying areas in Hoboken the afternoon before the storm hit.
“There were people who volunteered until 11 p.m. on a Friday night.” – Carly Ringer
“It was the high tide that did it to us,” explained longtime Hoboken resident Domenick Amato, a civil engineer, last week. Amato said that he had seen decades of storms in Hoboken, but they didn’t cause flooding the way this one did.
Six to seven feet of stormwater mixed with gasoline trapped residents of the downtown areas in their homes, and some had to be rescued by the National Guard, which arrived in town a week ago Wednesday.
Many people woke up the day after the storm, Tuesday, to find out that not only were they without power, but most stores in town were closed and phone service was down. Only a few blocks still had power, as the city’s three substations had flooded.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer began holding daily press conferences outside City Hall. Volunteers posted lists of important information around town and knocked on doors. Various locations were set up to give out free food and supplies.
Many volunteers trooped to City Hall to see what they could do, and were promptly put to work.
Most of the power was restored by this past Sunday. But as of the end of the week, nearly 1,000 residents were still without power. This is largely due to internal building issues in certain buildings. However, some residents still require the help of PSE&G.
“We are not through the crisis mode until all of these buildings are powered up,” said Zimmer on Wednesday.
The mayor is most concerned with the senior buildings, where elderly residents have suffered falls due to blacked out hallways and non-lit exit signs. Zimmer said she will be working toward a state or local requirement for permanent generators to be raised off the floor in senior buildings.
President Obama helps Hoboken
Zimmer said that Hoboken’s days in the national media spotlight were instrumental in bringing awareness to the town’s needs. Major network news crews were parked on most corners for days. People who saw the town on the news sent supplies and volunteered to help.
Zimmer said that a conference call with President Barack Obama this past Monday, representatives from FEMA, and close to 20 other people got the ball rolling for Hoboken relief.
“I explained [in the conference call] that there were about 60 high rises with seniors in them, and that we literally could not evacuate some people,” said Zimmer. “As a result of the things I expressed, the president established a task force, and any assistance that could be provided, was provided. I am extremely impressed that through a difficult election process, the president really helped to make things happen [for Hoboken]. Right after the conference call, Lt. Gen. Bostick came down and we took him to the Housing Authority. We got generators brought in and the FEMA team was able to find all of the circuit breakers, the ‘needle in the haystack.’ ”
Shelters and volunteer efforts
Hoboken City Hall saw 250 volunteers in a single day, including a group of students from Stevens Institute, who worked around the clock to help out. Volunteers from City Hall also knocked on doors, inquiring about the medical needs of residents, especially senior citizens. Volunteers were able to help seniors who were low on their medications.
Hoboken High School orchestrated a distribution center that saw 500 volunteers in a short time span. The operation at the high school was run like a well-oiled machine with point people in charge of different jobs. There were sorters, schedulers, greeters and even a “box man.” Volunteers at the high school worked in tandem with the National Guardsman to not only distribute throughout Hoboken, but also to pack trucks filled with “Heater Meals” for other ravaged towns like Newark.
Hoboken resident Carly Ringer, who also helped out during Hurricane Katrina, acted as the head of distribution day in and day out. Ringer was very impressed by the amount of people who gave up their weekends to help.
“There were people who volunteered until 11 p.m. on a Friday night,” said Ringer.
Additionally, Hoboken set up points of distribution (PODS) which were open to residents up until the Monday following the storm. These PODS were strategically placed near senior buildings and affordable housing, as a convenience to anyone who couldn’t walk too far through the hazardous streets.
Temporarily displaced residents were provided shelter at the Wallace School until Tuesday morning. Seniors were moved from the Wallace School to Hoboken Hospital due to heating issues and non-seniors were transported to a homeless shelter in Union City.
The Hoboken Homeless Shelter, which is the permanent shelter in the city at 300 Bloomfield St., can provide lodging for up to 50 people. It has been at capacity, but continues to serve 400 daily meals to the needy. Executive Director Jaclyn Cherubini said Tuesday that the shelter is in dire need of the following items: Paper goods and utensils, soap, socks, coffee, sugar, gloves for cleaning, cleaning supplies and paper products.
Up and coming recovery plans
The Hoboken public schools were able to re-open their doors on Thursday Nov 8, though some classrooms were completely destroyed by flooding and need to be relocated.
A bulletin board in front of City Hall has kept passers-by abreast of updates.
The city also plans to hold meetings next week in which residents with storm-related questions can get answers from many different organizations. Among the representatives expected to attend are FEMA, PSEG, Corner Cars and the NJ Department of Labor. Other tables will be available to advise on flood insurance, fire inspection, transitional housing options, and more. Two meetings are being discussed, one for individuals and one for businesses.
The regularly scheduled City Council meeting was pushed to Tuesday, Nov 13.
Regular parking rules will go back into effect on Tuesday.
Any resident who is still unable to take a shower due to outages can present a photo ID at Planet Fitness, 601 Washington St, and utilize their showers.
Going forward, Mayor Dawn Zimmer plans to advocate as strongly as she can to figure out the next step for Hoboken’s electrical substations.
“They are going to flood again and again,” Zimmer said. “Unfortunately, that’s the reality. I told the Secretary of Energy that I would love for them to make Hoboken the model [on how to fix this].”
Among other ways to help, those wanting to donate to the city’s rebuilding effort can go to rebuildhoboken.org.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at email@example.com.