Preparing for Hurricane Season with the Lessons of Sandy

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Stretching from June 1 – November 30, the 2016 Hurricane Season is quickly approaching. In preparation of the season, Coastal New Jersey native and long-time resident, Pam Mancuso (Firestorm Business Continuity Manager), takes a look back at the lessons learned from Super Storm Sandy. She reflects on her community’s response and reiterates why we prepare the way we do today.

My husband, Mark, and I were discussing Super Storm Sandy the other day.  He is an Instructor of Sciences at Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey and during Sandy, he was President of the Board of Education of Fair Haven School District, our local K-8 district. I was interested in hearing Mark’s thoughts on how our town and local school district responded during this event.

Prior to Sandy, Fair Haven had plans for school closings for weather-related events lasting a few days (snow storms, blizzards, hurricanes). Because we are on the Jersey Shore, however, there were no plans for extended closings, like we experienced due to Sandy. All local schools in Eastern Monmouth County and in much of the state were closed for nearly two weeks. Some local schools remained closed the rest of the 2012-2013 school year while the schools were rebuilt.

sandy 1

During these 12 days between Sandy’s arrival and when the power was returned, our “normal” modes of communication were not reliable. Once cell phones ran out of battery power, one had to find a way to charge. With a fully charged cell phone, you could check email, texts and Facebook, but you didn’t always know when you would be able to charge again.

In our small town of Fair Haven, when it was safe to venture outside, our town’s Mayor, Town Council, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Department of Public Works and Board of Education started meeting to discuss the status of our town. Were residents safe? Were roads safe? Were public buildings safe? Was the water supply safe? Were the gas lines safe? What was the power company saying? What could be done to keep residents informed and updated?

This group of town leaders (Mayor, Town Council, Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Public Works and the Board of Education), opened our Youth Center and created a meeting place. The Youth Center was attached to the Police department and subsequently connected to a backup generator. This became the place where news could be posted, phones could besandy 2 charged and where people could find out where help was needed. The issue was communicating that the Center was available. Twentieth century communications were not reliable. Good old word of mouth worked best. Town leaders told their friends about the Youth Center.  And their friends told friends, and so on.

Once people began meeting at the Youth Center, regularly scheduled meetings were arranged to convey information to residents. While some of the information was not well-received (the announcement that power would not be restored for more than a week), other information made a positive difference. There was a way to communicate volunteer needs to our community. Clothing and necessities collections for those who lost houses outside of our community were coordinated (while some houses were damaged in our town, none were deemed dangerous and non-livable).

The town leaders continued to discuss other services needed. One question remained: When could the schools reopen? Mark and the Board of Education decided there were too many issues prohibiting opening the school without power. Additionally, could the schools be re-purposed quickly? The decision was made to open the All Purpose Room in one of the schools to provide an area children could have a supervised gathering-place for a few hours a day. This allowed parents to begin the recovery process easily knowing their kids were being watched. This permitted parents to stand in line for hours to fill gas canisters, clean up branches, trees and debris from their property or assist others who needed help.

Looking across the Shrewsbury River at Sea Bright, NJ. Boats are piled on top of boats at a marina.

Looking across the Shrewsbury River at Sea Bright, NJ. Boats are piled on top of boats at a marina.

We survived 12 days without power and our community grew stronger. We also learned valuable lessons. Our town leaders were incredibly diligent communicating to residents, especially because regular methods of communication were not reliable. Neighboring town residents attended our town meetings because their towns were not providing disaster-relief information. We learned that communication, any type, is better than silence. What should change in preparation for future disasters? All residents should be educated and trained – ahead of time – of the town’s emergency plans. Where there will be power for charging phones and warming bodies, is one example.

For a brief moment, we returned to a simpler time. A time where neighbors helped neighbors and information was shared in person. A time where the most important job was being the Town Cryer because that was how information was shared.

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