Freeholder Bill O’Dea compared the nine or more days leading into Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath to the HBO show “24.”
“It all seems like one long day,” he said. “I feel like the Kiefer Sutherland character from that show. We knew areas had no power and we spent a lot of time trying to get information and take care of the people who needed the most help.”
He said he saw the best and the worst in humanity over that period. “Although most of the people were very good, helping each other.”
One man from St. Aloysius parish – Joe D’Amico – drove a truck of food and supplies from Ohio. A distribution center was set up in Lincoln Park, giving out food for more than 150 families.
“This was really good food, cans of ham, cans of soup, the kind of food that would make the most sense, that you could heat up on a stove or even on a fire, if you had to,” he said.
The donations also included 100 gallons of gas, which got distributed to people in need in small quantities.
“What I saw in the days after the storm gave me hope,” O’Dea said. “People looked each other in the eyes, said ‘hello’ to each other, asked how they were doing.”
The disaster brought together some strange political forces such as Ester Wintner, who drove around with Jersey City Councilman David Donnelly. And people from Goldman Sachs were allegedly calling around looking for ways to help.
County Plaza in Jersey City became a center of operations after the storm even though it had no power for a time.
O’Dea said County Administrator Abe Antun became a key leader during the storm and its aftermath.
“It’s amazing how much we’ve come to rely on technology,” O’Dea said. “This was Oct. 30 and we had no power, and on Nov. 1, food stamps and other funding were due. A lot of people would need them to make up for the food they lost during the storm. But we’ve changed the way people get food stamps. We now give them a card that they can use in an ATM machine. The problem is that most of the ATM machines were out and by Nov. 1, there was a line around the block at one of the few still operating. We had to find banks that still had power and set up a shuttle to get people there. We did not want to have a panic.”
O’Dea credited Antun and Director of Buildings and Roads Harold “Buddy” Demellier as one of the key people who had anticipated some of the problems.
“Abe was out there giving a lot of directions,” O’Dea said. “Buddy [Demellier] had the foresight to move the county’s transcend vehicles out of the low-lying site on Dunkin Avenue and to higher ground near the administration building.”
This would prove useful later when the county needed to evacuate seniors and others from buildings lacking heat and power, as well as some homeless people from various locations to temporary digs at Dickinson High School. Seniors were evacuated from a number places throughout Jersey City and elsewhere when heat and power failed.
Poor areas initially excluded from some services
Areas near the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny saw significant flooding. Unfortunately, many personal vehicles of jail guards were damaged.
Building 77 – the future home of the county Office of Emergency Management – suffered over $1 million in water damage.
“We’re going to have to find a way to prevent flooding there or find a new location for our OEM,” O’Dea said.
Because of flooding and the storm, the county facility stopped taking prisoners. This is not unusual and when problems occur, prisoners bound for county jail are usually kept at the administration building on Newark Avenue.
“But the facility had no power,” O’Dea said. This meant that local police had to house prisoners, and this took manpower off the streets.
Power and other problems in Jersey City seem to split the city with power coming on sooner in areas north of Montgomery Street while south Jersey City and much of Bayonne suffered longer outages.
Food deliveries and shelter facilities also were provided to areas north of Montgomery Street, O’Dea said.
“Some of our poorest and most vulnerable residents live south of Montgomery Street,” O’Dea said.
Days later, food distribution centers were established in the south, near Westside Avenue Light Rail Station, Country Village, and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“It all seems like one long day.” – Bill O’Dea
“Planning for this was terrible,” O’Dea said, although he credited some members of the Hudson County Utility Authorities with responding to the needs of the city. “The OEM has a plan for a natural disaster, but there were a lot of things we failed to do.”
He said this included a list of shut-ins that needed to be checked on, which was largely not done except by individuals.
“Freeholder [Anthony] Romano did a good job with the OEM in Hoboken,” O’Dea said.
Many mayors around Hudson County were critical of the OEM response, something made clear during one conference call in the middle of the response.
While many municipalities, including Jersey City and Bayonne, used a reverse 9-1-1 to keep residents informed, many residents could not be reached, either because lack of power drove them out of their homes or because poorer people have given up landlines for less expensive cellular phones.
Jersey City Hall never opened, although Councilman Steven Fulop had about 30 volunteers there.
Jersey City Councilwoman Viola Richardson, he said, provided a lot of leadership down in Ward F in Jersey City.
One building, which is funded for poor and seniors in Jersey City, gave notice to residents that they would have to move out for three weeks while repairs unrelated to the storm took place.
But this temporary eviction happened in the aftermath of the storm, and county officials had to find housing for the residents, and managed to settle single people into SROs and hotel rooms for women with children.
O’Dea was critical of the policy of issuing summons for violations of the curfew when those people might have been used more effectively in helping to evacuate people or provide services to those most affected by the storm.
He added that crime went mostly unnoticed in various areas, including some looting in areas such as Hudson Mall on Route 440 in Jersey City.
Residents along the eastern slope of Jersey City Heights said there was a rash of break-ins and some people posing as fake representatives of FEMA, something O’Dea heard complaints about as well.
He had also heard reports of muggings, something one Bayonne woman said she feared when walking down one street when she noticed someone following her.
The county evacuated the Fairmount Hotel and another site and brought the residents to the National Guard Armory on Montgomery Street. Lack of power and heat were big concerns.
While Bayonne commandeered a gas station to make certain that it emergency vehicles would have enough fuel to do rescues and other duties, in Jersey City, cops and others emergency responders were allowed to fill up their personal vehicles as well, figuring they needed to get to their assignment places. But O’Dea said there were abuses, some filling up cars for neighbors or pretty girls.
A gas station on Belleville Turnpike in Kearny became a fuel resource for a number of county rescue workers and volunteers, where they were able to fill up at various times without extensive lines.