With a little luck, the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30, will hold no unpleasant surprises for Hudson County. But one forecast is certain: another major weather event will hit this area sooner or later.
Since Superstorm Sandy, some improvements have been made in Jersey City’s communication efforts, although residents may not be able to measure their effectiveness until the next crisis hits.
“We understand that communication was a problem last year,” said Greg Kierce, director of Jersey City’s Office of Emergency Management and Office of Homeland Security (OEM). “We had a lot of information to give out to people and updates were changing very quickly. But we at OEM did not have direct access to the city website. So, we couldn’t post updates online when we had them.”
Since then, Jersey City has elected a new mayor and City Council members who have vowed to improve communications with residents, in times good and bad.
Kierce said one change that has been made since the election of Mayor Steven Fulop is that his office will have direct access to the city website. In the event of an emergency or natural disaster, a member of the OEM staff will be able to post important information quickly.
‘Sandy was a defining event for all of us; the state’s entire energy infrastructure needs to be rethought in light of weather conditions that many predict will continue to occur.’ – Ralph Izzo
“We will still operate that as a headquarters,” said Kierce. “But in the future residents will see more city workers deployed to locations throughout the city so information and resources can be disseminated faster.”
All this information will be meaningless, of course, if residents do not have fully-charged cell phones and other electronics so they can access the city website and other city resources, Kierce acknowledged. Thus, new lights, generators, and other emergency equipment the city purchases will have electrical outlets so residents can hook up power strips to charge their electronics.
What happened to the county radio station?
In 2009, Hudson County installed an elaborate siren system in every municipality that was supposed to give residents important information in an emergency. While this system was successfully tested several times, it was flooded during Hurricane Sandy and did not work.
In addition, the sirens are primarily meant to direct people to the county AM station, 1710. But Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea said the information he heard on 1710 AM during the hurricane was months out of date.
County spokesman Jim Kennelly said Friday that the station is meant to be used to disseminate information regarding a countywide emergency (such as a terror attack). Since Sandy affected different parts of the county differently, county officials deferred to local municipalities, he said.
O’Dea said he was able to get decent reception throughout the county during Hurricane Sandy, but other Hudson County residents said they had a harder time getting reception.
The county hopes to get approval to get more bandwidth for the station, which Kennelly said will improve reception. However, at present, no approval has been given by the Federal Communications Commission. The county has retained an attorney to help negotiate a stronger signal for the station in the future.
As for keeping the countywide siren system powered, those improvements should come as upgrades are made to the energy infrastructure.
To improve communication in time for the next emergency, O’Dea said the county has beefed up its free “reverse 911” system, officially known as the Emergency Notification System (ENS).
Hudson Country residents can sign up for ENS online through the county website (https://hcnj.onthealert.com) and through ENS forms that are available in county office buildings. Some municipalities are also allowing ENS sign up forms to be mailed with quarterly tax bills.
“The advantage with this system is we can do very targeted messages,” said O’Dea. “For example, let’s say there a five-block area in downtown Jersey City where we want to evacuate people. We can send e-mails, text messages, and make pre-recorded calls to people in just that area.”
Since the system is new and launched just this summer, O’Dea said many residents still are not aware that it exists and may not be signed up for it yet.
CERT interest is up
Sandy also revived local interest among some residents to be trained for Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).
These 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. 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.
During 2011’s Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, Jersey City had too few CERT volunteers trained to help residents who needed food, water, medical care, or help with an evacuation.
In other nearby towns, CERT volunteers delivered such items to neighbors who lost power during the hurricane. In Hoboken, CERT volunteers went through the city posting memos and other important notification on foot since there was no power.
Prior to Hurricane Sandy, Jersey City had almost 400 CERT-trained residents. This number included several city employees. But no community teams were activated in Jersey City during Hurricane Sandy.
Since then, OEM has put out periodic calls for residents to get trained.
“We now have a full-time instructor to train CERT volunteers, thanks to a grant from the [Department of Homeland Security],” said Kierce. “Our CERT trainings started up again in January and since then 60 new people have been trained, and we’ve had a few people who were trained previously who came back for a refresher course.”
While the number of new CERT recruits is encouraging, Kierce said residents must still sign up to be part of an official team, something few trained people have done so far.
“That’s where we still have a bit of a problem,” he said. “What we really need is for the people with the training to now join a team so they can be activated during an emergency.”
Keeping the lights on
While Superstorm Sandy garnered most of the attention and blame for devastating parts of Hudson County last year, it was, in fact, just one in a series of major storms that hit the area in recent years.
Hurricane Irene, which hit in August 2011 and has been eclipsed somewhat by Sandy, actually dropped more rain on the area and caused more flooding, particularly to inland properties. And residents may be surprised to hear that the early snowstorm that came in October 2011 also wreaked havoc on local infrastructure.
“With Sandy, Irene, and the 2011 October snowstorm, we had three of the most damaging storms in our company’s history in quick succession,” said Ralph LaRosa, president and chief operating officer of PSE&G. “It was clear that we needed to do something extraordinary.”
In an effort to strengthen the region’s energy infrastructure, PSE&G – northern New Jersey’s main provider of gas and electricity – earlier this year announced its Energy Strong initiative, a $3.9 billion 10-year plan to strengthen and protect its gas and electricity delivery systems from severe weather. In February, PSE&G filed a funding request with the New Jersey Board of Utilities for $2.6 billion to cover the first five years of improvements and said it later will seek another $1.3 billion to cover the last five years of its improvement plan.
“It’s clear that Sandy, Hurricane Irene, and the October ice storm in 2011 represent extreme weather patterns that have become commonplace,” said PSE&G Chairman and CEO Ralph Izzo. “It’s equally clear that how we live and do business is so dependent on energy that any outage is hard to tolerate. Sandy was a defining event for all of us; the state’s entire energy infrastructure needs to be rethought in light of weather conditions that many predict will continue to occur. Reliability is no longer enough; we must also focus on the resiliency of our systems to withstand natural disasters.”
In short, PSE&G’s Energy Strong plan will protect switching stations and substations from water damage, reinforce utility poles and overhead wires, replace gas lines in flood-prone communities, and use new technology to improve how the energy grid functions.
Twelve switching stations and substations that PSE&G plans to either raise or fortify are located in Hudson County, including six in Jersey City, three in Hoboken, one in North Bergen, and one in Bayonne. The twelfth station is located in Kearny.
The agency plans to allocate $1.7 billion to raise, relocate, or fortify/protect a total of 31 switching stations and substations statewide. Another $454 million will be spent to implement so-called “smart grid” technology. About $200 million will go towards creating back-ups within the energy system so secondary sources of power can be accessed if primary sources fail. About 20 miles of overhead electrical lines will be relocated underground, an undertaking that will cost an estimated $60 million. Nine natural gas metering stations and a liquefied natural gas station will be fortified to better protect against natural disasters, with an estimated price tag of $140 million. Finally, $1.04 billion will be spent to replace and upgrade about 750 miles of low-pressure gas mains that are currently located in or near known flood areas.
PSE&G claims the $3.9 billion investment needed to upgrade the power infrastructure will have only a modest impact on customer bills since the price of natural gas has dropped approximately 40 percent over the past three years.
Two weeks ago, PSE&G announced that five New Jersey Counties, including Hudson County, have adopted resolutions supporting the utility’s Energy Strong initiative, as have 54 municipalities.
However, of the 54 municipalities that have endorsed the Energy Strong plan, Hoboken, Secaucus, and Kearny are the only ones based in Hudson County, according to information supplied by PSE&G.
The New Jersey Hospital Association and several labors groups and chambers of commerce, including the Hudson County Chamber of Commerce, have also endorsed the Energy Strong proposal.
Long-term changes on the horizon?
Sandy has also forced discussions, both locally and nationally, regarding future development.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently in the process of revising flood maps and construction recommendations for this region. While these plans have yet to be finalized and adopted, draft recommendations released earlier this year call for the lowest floor of a development to be built at least one foot above the base flood elevation.
The recommendations would apply only to new developments that have yet to be approved, not projects that are already built or ones that have already broken ground. But the guidelines could force architectural designs that city planners and retailers don’t like. Earlier this year planners from Jersey City and Hoboken met with FEMA officials to discuss alternative solutions to the problem.
More recently, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer successfully lobbied for her city to be exempted from a state law that allows development on piers and other flood-prone coastal areas. The law, which was drafted to encourage economic growth, supersedes local ordinances that prohibit such development. But Zimmer was able to have Hoboken excluded from the law, citing Sandy’s devastating impact on Hoboken last year.
In a letter to the state Assembly’s Environmental and Solid Waste Committee last month, Zimmer wrote: “The residents of Hoboken are strongly against development on waterfront piers…We know firsthand that federal policies do not at this time support urban areas,” she said. “For example, this legislation will potentially result in unwary buyers purchasing property only to find out that the flood insurance they were required to purchase does not cover their buildings and they cannot get other assistance.”
Sandy has also prompted interest in the construction of flood walls, a controversial idea to minimize the impact of another major storm. The idea is controversial because, for them to work, floodwalls must be constructed across an entire region, or else the floodwalls that protect one city can actually endanger a neighboring town without them.
“The water has to have someplace to go,” Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan told The Reporter in March. So, let’s say a city like Hoboken has floodwalls. Well, maybe Hoboken is protected. But that flood water doesn’t go away. It just goes next door to Jersey City or West New York. So, floodwalls have to be a region wide option for them to be effective.”
Sheehan added that floodwalls can also be breached if a storm surge is high enough.
At present, the flood wall concept is still being debated and is not being implemented by any Hudson County municipality.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.