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, can 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.
“It all seems like one long day.” – Bill O’Dea
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.
“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.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.
Election Day: getting the machines to work
Heading into Election Day, many of the polling places did not have power, and county workers scrambled to find a way to make certain people could vote.
Mark Smith – mayor of Bayonne and chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization – called looking for information about how to get power.
A lot of people came to County Plaza to vote early, but several people realized that Election Day would post problems since power was not expected to be restored in time for many places.
Freeholder Bill O’Dea and others met with Michael Harper, from the County Office of Election, to try to come up with a list of polling places that did not have power.
More than half the places in O’Dea’s district in Jersey City had no power, so they had to create super polling places which combined districts, and then somehow get people to them.
But it became clearer as time when on that they would have to find generators somewhere. The Office of Elections for the county apparently called up all the Home Depots to purchase generators, but all were sold out.
Meanwhile O’Dea contacted U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s chief of staff about getting some from the state. Somehow they managed to come up with about 11 generators, including one supplied by Fulop.
Still looking for answers, O’Dea was driving gown Jewett Street in Jersey City with the nephew of Hank Gallo – O’Dea’s former political adversary – when they saw an old black woman and a younger man struggling to unload a generator at their house.
“I rolled down the window and asked her where she got the generator and she said from the Home Depot in Secaucus. I asked if they had any left – I thought they would be sold out. She said they must have had 100. So I went over to Gary’s Sweet Shop and called up the store to have them put 15 aside, then sent a crew over there. I gave them two of my credit cards. Then I called up Abe Antun to tell him what we were doing.”
Even though they used county trucks from Lincoln Park, it was not enough. Management at Home Depot was at first reluctant to sell so many generators to one group, but eventually – apparently realizing the need – sold the county 30. O’Dea’s crew had to requisition the use of a Home Depot employee and truck to help drop off the generators, and used the County Sheriff as an escort, delivering the generators to lower Jersey City and various polling places in Bayonne.
“Although we knew [Union City Mayor] Brian Stack usually took care of his own polling places, we sent him two generators,” O’Dea said.
In an operation that started on Sunday, they managed to get the polling places powered up by 5 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6, two hours before polls were scheduled to open. During the day, power began to come on in various polling places. – A. Sullivan