Throughout the worst hours of Hurricane Irene last weekend, Jersey City made seven shelters available to the public, including one that was dedicated to pet owners and their animals. Even though only about 500 people used the shelters, Jersey City Office of Emergency Management Director Greg Kierce said the city had the capacity to house as many as 2,500 people.
New Orleans’ inability to shelter and evacuate residents (and their pets) after levies were breached in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was among the biggest lessons for OEM professionals after that disaster.
But despite the city’s best efforts last weekend, some residents have been critical of certain aspects of Jersey City’s response to the storm. Now, with several months left of hurricane season, officials are weighing what they can do to prepare in the future.
Residents criticize evacuations
The city issued a mandatory evacuation order for certain low-lying neighborhoods at 1:41 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, just hours before the storm was expected to hit.
Residents were specifically critical of what they saw as a lack of timely communication between city officials and the community.
Many residents said last week they had never heard of the city’s C3 alert system.
The advisory included information regarding the city’s shelters and some basic information regarding transit service. And in an advisory issued at 5:01 p.m. – an hour after the mandatory evacuation for vulnerable communities took effect – the city issued an advisory regarding its pet friendly shelter.
This same information was also disseminated through Facebook and Twitter, city officials have said.
However, many residents interviewed last week said they had never heard of the city’s C3 alert system. Those who were aware of the C3 system said it worked inconsistently, and at least two residents stated they didn’t understand some of the information in the alerts they received.
“I actually have signed up for C3 and I did receive the alert about the mandatory evacuation,” said downtown resident Rob Ducket. “It would have been easier if they said, ‘Evacuate if you live on Columbus Drive, between this street and that street.’ I didn’t understand all of the ‘north of this street, south of that street’ stuff that was in the advisory.”
Some residents clearly wanted more information to be posted directly to the city website, rather than through C3 and social media outlets.
In an e-mail sent to Healy and members of the City Council on Thursday, Aug. 25 at 5:55 p.m., activist Riaz Wahid wrote: “As of today…the residents of Jersey City have not seen any instructions about Hurricane Irene from the administration…We request you to provide detailed guidance to the residents immediately, with hotline number etc. [We] would appreciate if the administration could seek help from [the] county, state, and federal governments to make it easy for us.”
A downtown resident whose street had the potential to flood in a heavy rainstorm said she waited hours on Saturday, Aug. 27 for the city to issue a mandatory evacuation order for her street or neighborhood.
Another resident said that on Sunday, Aug. 28 he received an automatic call from the city stating that the vehicle ban had been lifted. “But we had never received any notification that had been a vehicle ban in the first place,” he noted.
“I live [downtown] on Fourth Street,” said Beth Tenant last week. “My basement floods even when we have nor’easters. So my boyfriend and I left town after work on Friday. But I have neighbors whose homes and apartments normally don’t flood. They told me later that they stayed ’cause they weren’t sure if we were in an evacuation zone or not.”
Tenant said she and her neighbors went to the city’s website several times but found the information there to be “incomplete.” She added that she made the decision to evacuate after visiting the municipal web sites of other cities, including New York and Hoboken.
Hoboken began encouraging residents to leave beginning Wednesday, and issued a mandatory evacuation order at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning.
“I kind of pieced together information based on what I was reading from different sites, and based my decision on that.” Tenant stated.
But Kierce vehemently rejects the suggestion that the city did not adequately disseminate info in a timely manner.
“I don’t know how people can say that. We released this information in a variety of ways, through different channels,” Kierce stated. “We’ve done a lot to promote our C3 alert system. I know I’ve talked about it a lot. I know Mayor Healy has actively promoted it. So, I would not say that is a fair criticism at all.”
Shelter from the storm
Being situated just across the Hudson River from New York City is, according to Kierce, both a blessing and a curse. A curse, because Jersey City is more vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of its proximity to the Big Apple. And a blessing, because along with this vulnerability comes federal money.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina, Kierce said a lot of emergency management planning is now done on a regional, rather than a local basis, which better enables cities and counties to tap each others’ resources when a disaster – natural or man-made – hits.
He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) have now issued standard guidelines for how regions of the country should deal with disasters, which expedites and streamlines planning for an event like Irene.
When planning for the hurricane, this regional approach, said Kierce, “allowed us to stockpile assets such as a considerable amount of sheltering equipment and medical equipment. Also, we had the ability to quickly transport equipment and resources to other areas in our [region], if that had been necessary.”
Who’s got the power?
Noting that thousands of New Jersey residents were still without power on Wednesday, Sept. 1, Kierce was critical of the utilities companies, which he said, “seemed a bit unprepared to deal with this storm. If any improvements need to be made for the next event, I would say that’s an area that needs to be looked at.”
Kierce and other OEM managers from the region will be meeting in the coming days to assess the area’s response to Hurricane Irene – lessons that may be needed should Tropical Storm Katia become a hurricane and head this way. Katia was moving northeast in the Atlantic Ocean as of press time on Friday.
While hurricanes tend to lose strength before they hit New Jersey, meteorologists have said for years that the New York City metro area, which includes Jersey City, is long overdue for a direct hit from a major hurricane. Despite the flooding, power outages, and property damage in Central New Jersey and elsewhere, Irene probably wasn’t The Big One.
Since the long-predicted 100-year hurricane could still be looming on the horizon, residents and the region’s emergency management experts remain concerned about the future.
To register for Jersey City’s C3 alerts, visit https://my.c3alert.us/jerseycitynj/home/welcome.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.