Emergency managers learn from Sandy


 The boardwalk in Ocean Grove is being rebuilt in sections this year after being battered by superstorm Sandy in 2012. The boardwalk in Ocean Grove is being rebuilt in sections this year after being battered by superstorm Sandy in 2012. I n New Jersey, where tornadoes, wildfires, blizzards, nor’easters and hurricanes are just some of the disasters perpetually on the horizon, it pays to be prepared.

For the thousands of municipal, county and state emergency management officials whose job is to continually plan for the worst, the past few years have been both a vindication of their work and a hard-won education.

“In the last four years, there have been 11 presidential disaster declarations,” said Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management (OEM).

“Emergency management officials have had to deal with situations that they have not had to deal with before, from the human need to the rebuilding process to long-term recovery. But they have been very able to adapt.”

 Above: Operations Chief Charles Ehret, left, and OEM Coordinator Charles Rogers III stand alongside one of their vehicles at the Middletown Office of Emergency Management. Below: A Sandy-damaged home stands condemned in Sayreville. Right: A sign keeps visitors off a section of the boardwalk in Long Branch. Above: Operations Chief Charles Ehret, left, and OEM Coordinator Charles Rogers III stand alongside one of their vehicles at the Middletown Office of Emergency Management. Below: A Sandy-damaged home stands condemned in Sayreville. Right: A sign keeps visitors off a section of the boardwalk in Long Branch. Today’s OEMs, replete with emergency response vehicles, high-tech command centers and comprehensive mitigation plans, have come a long way from their predecessors, which used fire trucks and ambulances to announce local evacuations via bullhorn. New Jersey’s long track record of natural and manmade disasters not only gave birth to modern OEM units, but it made them stronger, officials say.

“We can always be better,” said Joe Krisza, head of the Middlesex County Department of Public Safety and Health, which oversees OEM operations. “After every event, we take a look at our response and find ways to upgrade, to revise and improve our plans for the next event.” For most of the 20th century, federal and state disaster-relief programs were mainly focused on protecting the population from acts of war.

An increase in manmade disasters throughout the ’70s and ’80s, however, including the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979, shed light on the need for more comprehensive preparedness and response strategies at all levels of government.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created in 1979, and was tasked with assisting state and local governments as they set up their own emergency management operations.

New Jersey’s OEM was officially established in 1980, and towns throughout the state were required to create their own OEMs over the ensuing years.

Today, OEM officials at the local, county and state level use technology, specialized equipment and dozens of regularly updated plans to prepare for and respond to every conceivable emergency situation, from storms to pandemics to terrorist acts.

Each plan, which outlines specific emergency response efforts, evacuation procedures, public health concerns and responsibilities for the various responders and officials involved, is continually updated to account for new resources and lessons learned in previous emergencies.

Even with a wealth of hurricanes, nor’easters and floods from which to draw experience, local OEM officials said superstorm Sandy turned a lot of their plans upside down.

“We have plans in place for every type of disaster, every type of response,” Krisza said.

“Sandy taught us that you get thrown curveballs all the time, and you have to be able to make instant decisions on how to handle those.”

In Middlesex, for example, Krisza said Sandy destroyed backup generators, pumps and other redundant systems designed to mitigate the impacts of such a disaster, forcing officials and emergency responders to react quickly and formulate new plans on the spot.

“It was a lesson learned for us,” he said.

Since then, the county has reexamined all its emergency response programs and plans, instituting new drills and establishing newer, more resilient communications strategies, including a comprehensive upgrade of the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

The county OEM is also collaborating with each of its 25 towns to identify needed resources and ensure they are evenly distributed. One such program, Krisza said, involves procuring new inflatable boats used to access flooded areas, and placing them in strategic locations throughout the county.

“We really revisited everything we do,” he said. “We didn’t leave a stone unturned.”

Local OEMs have made similar changes, building on strategies and equipment they found made the most difference in Sandy’s wake.

In Middletown, township officials recently unveiled a technologically enhanced emergency operations center capable of monitoring local roads and emergency response efforts in real time. Powered by a generator, the center would also allow officials to seamlessly communicate with responders on the ground, as well as county, state and federal officials, regardless of the conditions outside.

Communication, according to Middletown OEM Coordinator Charles Rogers III, is the most important facet of any OEM operation. From ordering an evacuation to opening and managing a shelter, lives depend on spreading the word quickly and efficiently, he said.

“We want the people to understand we really think there is a problem here,” he said. “If you can get people to trust you and listen to you, that’s No. 1. Then you have to be prepared to help them.”

One of the biggest challenges encountered during Sandy actually began during Tropical Storm Irene, when residents were evacuated only to return home and find relatively little damage, Rogers said.

In the lead-up to Sandy, some residents chose to ignore the township’s evacuation order, figuring it would be similar in nature. At the height of the storm, emergency responders had to drive Army trucks into chest-high water, at times floating partially off the road, to rescue residents of a senior community on Main Street.

“It if wasn’t for them, we probably would have had people in real danger,” Rogers said. “In situations like that, it gets scary.”

While the incident highlighted the importance of dedicated responders and emergency response equipment, Rogers said it also underlined the need for effective communications.

Local emergency alert systems, such as Reverse 911, have become one of the most effective ways to reach residents before, during and after an emergency event. OEM officials said they encourage everyone in their communities to sign up for the text message- or email-based alerts.

In the storm-rocked borough of Oceanport, OEM Coordinator Mauro “Buzz” Baldanza said emergency alerts, as well as social media updates by borough officials, proved vital after flooding destroyed Borough Hall and residents went without power for nearly two weeks.

Even before an emergency, the right information and guidance can make a world of difference for residents facing an uncertain future, he said.

“It’s not so much knowing what to during the event, as what to do before the event and how to prepare,” he said. “Having small emergency kits at home, or remembering to bring medications or important papers with them — those are all things we encountered after Sandy.”

While Sandy may have been an epochal event in New Jersey’s history, OEM officials throughout the state say there is still a danger of forgetting the lessons learned.

In storm-damaged communities where residents are rebuilding to higher elevations, for example, Baldanza said the dangers remain the same.

“They still have to evacuate during a storm,” he said, referencing gas explosions, fires and other emergencies that usually accompany violent storm surges. “We still may not be able to get to them during an emergency. It helps lessen the damage to the home, but it doesn’t make them safe.”

At the state level, Goepfert said OEM officials are hosting more regional training sessions and working to improve communications for future emergencies, helping impacted residents better understand and prepare for evacuations and shelter situations.

Goepfert also encouraged residents to sign up for their local, county and state OEM Facebook pages, which allowed Sandy victims to “crowd-source” needed information in the wake of the storm.

Those who want to take a more handson approach can volunteer as one of the 20,000 Community Emergency Response Team members who work with local OEMs throughout the state, she added.

“Trust and communication is paramount,” she said. “That is true for every disaster. If people in the community trust what their government is telling them, they are more likely to take protective actions and be prepared.”