Hurricane Sandy: Déjà vu all over again
Residents, city evaluate superstorm response and consider how to do better
by E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writer
Nov 18, 2012 | 5735 views | 2 2 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Images from Superstorm Sandy were reminiscent of Hurricane Irene, which hit the area almost one year and two months to the day. Pictured Jersey City after Hurricane Sandy
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If there’s one thing every Jersey City resident – in every ward, in every community – agrees on, it’s this: There will be another hurricane, and like Irene and Sandy, it will be called The Big One. It will be known as the third or fourth 100-year storm that we’ve had in the last five or six years.

Given the frequency with which we may see these superstorms and hurricanes, many residents – and even some public officials – say the city has to get smarter about emergency planning and has to learn to manage these types of crises better.

Where were the CERTs?

Community Emergency Response Teams are groups of citizens who receive specialized training to assist police, firefighters and other professional emergency personnel in a time of crisis. The CERT concept dates back to the 1980s, and FEMA began offering CERT training nationally in the early 1990s. Interest in CERT training increased after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Ideally, every community is supposed to have a core of residents who have received CERT training and who can help their communities prepare in advance for disasters, conduct light search and rescue, do light first aid and CPR, and assist with other emergencies as needed. In other nearby towns, CERT volunteers delivered food and water to neighbors who lost power during the hurricane. Some went around posting memos and knocking on doors since there was no power.

On Nov. 2, during the early days of the crisis, one Jersey City employee asked the Reporter, “Where are our CERT volunteers? That’s what I want to know, because no one has seen them.”

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Kierce said he is now exploring the possibility of having charging capabilities added to the city’s portable light towers so these towers can double as charging stations for residents.

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Jersey City has almost 400 residents who have received CERT training. This number also includes several city employees. But no community teams were activated in Jersey City during Hurricane Sandy.

“It’s great program. But one problem we’ve had with CERT is we had issues getting volunteers during Hurricane Irene. And it was a similar set of circumstances this year,” said Greg Kierce, director of the Jersey City Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “Self-preservation, it seems, comes first. Working with CERT becomes secondary. We had a pretty good number of people who got trained. And after 9/11, volunteerism was at an all-time high. But I think over the years people start to say, ‘Hey, look, I haven’t got the time.’ ”

Kierce said the city expects to award a new contract soon to a company that will give CERT training to residents and he hopes the superstorm will revive interest in the program.

He said during the storm, the city was able to locate 15 CERT citizens to help out.

Facebook, Tweets don’t work without power

Since the storm hit, many criticisms have been leveled against the administration of Mayor Jerramiah Healy for a lack of communication between the city and residents.

The mayor and his staff did issue press releases, updates, and other statements throughout the storm that were posted to the city website, the city’s Facebook page, and were Tweeted regularly. There were also a few press conferences held during the worst days of the storm.

“Some good that did us. I had no power. So how exactly was I supposed to know about any of this,” asked Alexa Merida, a West Side resident who went without electricity for six days.

“They might as well have been issuing statements from a bottomless pit,” said resident Stephen Davidson, who lives in Greenville and said he was “completely unaware” of any communication from the city. He said he went without power for seven days and used his cell phone and laptop computer “sparingly,” since the only place he could get a charge most days was at Starbucks. Even then, he said, “It was very difficult getting online. I doubt I would have been able to get most of this information, even if I had been fully charged.”

Kierce admits the power drain was a problem.

“When you have 200,000 people without power, or if they have it, in all probability they have no cable and therefore no internet access, it doesn’t matter how many updates you’re putting out there,” Kierce said. “So the messages did not get out. This was a lesson learned for everyone in this business.”

Kierce said he is now exploring the possibility of having charging capabilities added to the city’s portable light towers so these towers can double as charging stations for residents.

In nearby Hoboken, which is only a mile-square in size, flyers were posted in poles around town, a bulletin board was erected outside City Hall to give up to date information, and the same information was written on a Starbuck’s window at the other end of town.

While similar signs were posted in some locations of Jersey City, such signs seemed fewer in number.

City shelters ‘fine’

As with Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Hudson County, the city was quick to designate several shelters in advance of Hurricane Irene, including one shelter that was accessible to people and their pets.

People who stayed in these shelters after they lost power in their homes gave the city high marks for how the shelters were managed.

“Yeah, it’s been fine,” said Jim Maher, a Journal Square resident who stayed in the Dickinson High School gym shelter after he lost power and who was interviewed on his second night there. “It seems to be a pretty calm situation here. I’d rather be here with heat and people than sitting in my dark apartment that’s cold.”

A downtown resident named Maryanne who was also staying there said she was impressed.

“The people have been very kind here. We’ve had food and water and hot coffee,” she said. “I didn’t really want to stay at home in the dark. And I actually thought it would be safer to be here in a shelter with other people.”

Before the storm hit, members of the Jersey City Homeless Advocacy Group collected the homeless people from Journal Square and, with the help of Freeholder William O’Dea and the Jersey City Board of Education, had the city’s most prominent homeless population placed in one of the storm shelters.

One city employee raised concerns about whether the homeless and storm evacuees should share the same shelter in the future, or whether they should be segregated.

C3 Alert delays

Last year, during Hurricane Irene, residents were very critical of the C3 Alert system, the “reverse 911” system used by the city. During Irene, many residents criticized the city for relying heavily on a system that many people did not know existed.

That criticism arose somewhat again this year. But some residents also pointed out that C3 Alerts – which can be communicated in a text message, e-mail, or voicemail message – often came later than they should have.

“I know I received a voicemail message from the system telling me there was going to be some food offered somewhere. But I think I got the message five minutes before the giveaway was about to begin,” said Tisa Santiago, who lives near Journal Square. “I might have gone. But five minutes isn’t a lot of time to get somewhere that’s halfway across the city.”

Similarly, the night that Mayor Healy issued the 7 p.m. pedestrian curfew, the Reporter received a C3 Alert announcing the curfew at 6:37 p.m.

“We’ve become so dependent on the internet, cell phones, and things like that, that it’s a challenge to come up with different ways to get the message out,” said Kierce. “The old ways might be the best ways. We are now stocking up on bullhorns and I’m going to put some public address equipment put on some of our vehicles.”

Kierce said the C3 system is also dependent on the internet, and several major phone companies lost the use of their cell phone towers.

The powered and the powerless

Much has been made, and will be made, of the city’s interaction with electric and gas company PSE&G and how the widespread power outages across the city were handled.

Over the past two weeks, Jersey City and Hudson County officials have said that PSE&G did not disclose important information that would have enabled them to prepare for and manage the power outages better. Still, some residents have questioned why the city did not manage resources better, given that power blackouts were expected.

For example, the city has 20 light towers that Kierce said were distributed throughout the city. The Reporter saw several of these towers deployed in places like the Jersey City Heights and other neighborhoods. However, as power was restored, the towers were not reassigned to communities that remained in the dark.

Kierce disputed the assertion that 20 light towers are insufficient for a city of Jersey City’s size.

Also, some residents questioned why police officers could be found directing traffic during the days – when there ample sunlight – but were often absent at night when it was dark and traffic and street lights were out.

The future, and Fulop’s pending review

“We’ve been told this was an ‘unprecedented storm,’ which is true. But were told that last year with Irene. We’re spinning our wheels and not learning from our mistakes,” said Neal Schwartz, who said there needs to be a citywide assessment of what the city needs to do better the next time around.

Other residents have suggested the city hold a series of town hall-style meetings to discuss emergency preparedness with public officials, residents, and utility companies like PSE&G.

Ward E City Councilman Steven Fulop was the first elected official to publically solicit information and feedback from residents.

For the past week he has been collecting feedback from residents and plans to present what he has collected to the City Council next week. The information has been compiled in a nine-page document that highlights weaknesses in the city’s current emergency management response plans and suggests some possible solutions that might be discussed.

The comprehensive document discusses communication needs, ways to involve the public and social service and volunteer groups, ways to improve transportation, shelter needs, and other concerns.

This is, Fulop said, “an assessment of feedback that we have aggregated. We are disseminating [this] to community group leaders [this] week to start them thinking and get their feedback. We’re trying to create a tangible, actionable plan for improvement. I think what we have so far is good.”

E-mail E. Assata Wright at awright@hudsonreporter.com.

Comments
(2)
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klhrabosky
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November 25, 2012
The Healy administration's response was incredible weak. And the curfew was a joke when one could find the Mayor's own downtown bar open nightly way past curfew. He has no interest in leading by example. Dispicable.
klhrabosky
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November 25, 2012
Correction: Healy's SON's bar. Same difference.