By Kimberly Zayac
The power of Mother Nature was made plain on June 23, when a quick-moving but heavily damaging storm made its way through Gloucester County.
During the storm, large trees were ripped from the ground due to high winds and pounding rain. Electricity was lost in the majority of townships in the county, with outages lasting into the next week. Several township officials have responded to the storm’s destruction, detailing the disaster plans that are in place and how residents can become more prepared for when disastrous weather may happen again.
Parts of East Greenwich, perhaps one of the townships hardest hit, were without power for up to a week after the storm. Mayor Dale Archer is quick to comment on the communication block during and after the storm hit.
When asked about shortcomings, he stated communication as the number one problem. “Communication needs to be improved,” he said, clarifying that this means communication on all levels, between Atlantic City Electric, state officials and with residents.
Harrison Township Mayor Lou Manzo echoes the same concern as that of East Greenwich about communication. “With power out…including (initially) at our municipal building and public works and police facilities, it was difficult to convey information to the public. Things like letting them know where the county had set up ‘water, ice & charging’ stations locally; conveying Red Cross information, if necessary; giving updates on the power restoration process. Unless someone called us (once our phones were up and running, which was the following day) or called me on my cell phone, they weren’t aware of these things,” Manzo said.
One significant reason for the lack of communication between parties was the damage to a Verizon Wireless pole during the storm. Due to this, “Unfortunately, we were unable to reach the people with Verizon, including firemen and policemen,” Archer states. He also added, “Not being able to get messages out was very troubling.”
Archer has since been in meetings, brainstorming ways to better communication for residents in East Greenwich. A committee discussed a form of communication seen in the neighboring town of Clayton, an app for resident’s smartphones, where officials can better get information out to their respective townships.
Archer said that the township has brought in the app’s creator, a Woodbury business owner, to talk about the possibilities. Of course, the downfall for this form of communication being the future damaging of cell phone towers.
When thinking of ways that Manzo would better communicate to Harrison Township, he stated, “In hindsight, I think we would send our fire crews through the town with ‘bull horn’ updates…or something like that.”
Archer mentions that East Greenwich Township is also looking into bettering its Facebook and social media communication. He has also spoken to the Home Owners Association presidents in the area to make sure residents are being taken care of the best ways possible.
The strength of June’s storm begs the question: are our townships equipped with existing disaster plans? Archer states that East Greenwich Township has an office of emergency management, run by coordinator Michael Senkier.
The official East Greenwich township website states, “The East Greenwich Office of Emergency Management, established by federal and state statutes, works to prevent emergencies and strives to be prepared for any type of emergency that might occur. These goals are accomplished through mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.”
Harrison Township and bordering Woolwich Township are also enabled with natural disaster plans for their residents. “We have a definitive Emergency Management Guide with specific protocols…that we enacted during Hurricane Sandy,” Manzo states. “This includes setting up a Command Post at our municipal building or mobile unit. In this event, we did not enact those protocols because of the nature of the event.”
Woolwich Mayor Sam Maccarone stated, “We have an Emergency Management Coordinator who I have all the confidence in the world in. He’s been with us for five years now.”
Archer also mentions that East Greenwich has a functioning command center where residents may call with questions about safety and protocol. During the storm, the command center was up and running an hour and half after the storm hit. “It only took that long because of all the roads being blocked by trees and wires,” Archer said.
Generally, resident’s feedback on how the storm’s damage was handled were positive. “I’ve personally received and responded to a lot of emails, and 99 percent of those were positive,” Archer said.
Many residents applauded East Greenwich’s public works, police and fire fighters, and how they worked to secure the township. Residents also noted how appreciative they were of the townships all coming together to help in areas that needed it the most.
Manzo and Maccarone were also quick to complement their respective public works teams. “Our volunteers did a great job,” Maccarone said. “They were able to assist other areas where they needed it. We were lucky.”
The majority of criticism from residents was directed toward the state, particularly to Governor Chris Christie, for his seeming lack of concern. A letter sent to the Governor by Manzo may have helped spark more concern and attention to the lack-thereof southern New Jersey’s damage.
“I sent the letter to the Governor’s Office July 1 in my capacity as President of the Gloucester County Mayor’s Association,” Manzo said. “By that time, many mayors were frustrated by the State’s apparent ‘blind eye’ to the magnitude of the storm’s impact. The letter prompted State OEM to host a conference call later on Wednesday for South Jersey mayors and that lead to the Lieutenant Governor coming down to host a meeting in Woolwich the next day.”
Now, several weeks after the storm, Christie has requested a major disaster declaration for Gloucester, Burlington, Atlantic and Salem counties heavily damaged by the storm. According to the Courier Post, Christie states that over $15 million in damages were caused in these counties during the storm. Manzo states that communication with the state has since been better.
Along with lack of concern from the state, many residents fume over the lack of communication coming from Atlantic City Electric after the storm. Archer states that it was 48 hours after the storm hit that he found out that power lines were still unattended to by the electric company.
Archer shared that he had a conference call with Atlantic City Electric officials on Friday, with power having been out since Tuesday evening. He was assured that by Saturday at noon, 90 percent of residents should have power back.
“They were pounding themselves on the chest assuring the power would be back by that time,” Archer said. However, East Greenwich was part of the 10 percent that did not receive power on Saturday, which was not communicated well.
“There was no lack of effort from East Greenwich to Atlantic City Electric,” Archer stated. He also stressed that ice distribution centers and cell phone charging stations were handled through the county, as he received some comments about unfortunate communication from residents unaware of where these things would be handed out.
Kristina Roll of East Greenwich is among the many residents frustrated with Atlantic City Electric. “The electric company had a number that we could call for an update. They would give us a time to expect power to be back on and when that time came, they would extend another 12 hours. This went on for almost 7 days,” Roll said.
Luckily, Harrison Township’s homes were largely left unscathed. Said Manzo, “We were…extremely lucky in Harrison Township compared with some of our bordering neighbors (Greenwich and East Greenwich, Mantua, Woolwich, Clarksboro, etc.). We only had one home that was significantly damaged by a fallen tree…and by the Grace of God, no one was injured.”
However, several homes in East Greenwich were severely damaged by the storm. Sixteen homes and three businesses were deemed uninhabitable. Out of those 16, 15 had homeowners insurance.
Thankfully, all of those families strongly impacted were given aid right away. “The Red Cross was fantastic,” Archer commended. The Red Cross was on hand shortly after the storm, feeding and handing out water to residents impacted, and also charging cell phones.
Roll is quick to recognize the hard work put in by the Red Cross and public works in East Greenwich. “Red Cross and Volunteer Fire fighters at Kingsway were so incredible, thoughtful, nice, helpful and friendly. [I] cannot say enough about them!”
However, Roll admits that she was unhappy with the communication involved with ice and water distribution. “A friend told me about water and ice at the Kingsway High School. Had she not told me, I would have continued the hunt for ice which was impossible to find!”
June’s storm has served as a wake-up call for South Jersey. “We’re going to have to be cognizant that this storm could occur again,” Archer said. “We’re taking it more seriously. We sustained significant damage.”
Archer mentions that the township will have to secure homes and businesses more effectively. One way to do this includes removing more trees to ensure safety. Unhealthy trees, those dying or being uprooted, will be removed.
The township will also be purchasing equipment such as generators for when power outages are widespread.
Manzo cautions Harrison residents that, while this was a “very unusual storm for our region,” weather of this magnitude could hit at any time. “Generator sales went through the roof during this event. Even if you don’t want to go to that extent, I think having a ‘battery back-up’ on your sump pump should be considered. [It is] also a good idea to have a battery-powered transistor radio handy to be able to get some news when NOTHING electric is working.” Maccarone echoes in agreement, “generators seem to be the biggest thing.”
For future circumstances like these, Manzo hopes to make the communication in his township clearer. “It’s about ensuring that the local leadership connects with the county, and the county connects with the state, and the lines of communication are open and interactive.”
All township residents are welcome to voice their concerns through email or phone calls to their respective officials, and are urged to attend township meetings. Concludes Archer, “The bar has been set on this storm so now we can recover quicker.”