LINDEN — Although the city took a major hit from superstorm Sandy, Mayor Rich Gerbounka is counting his blessings and looking toward recovery.
The city is slowly rebounding after superstorm Sandy swept through its streets, leaving more than $900 million in damages to private and public sectors.
The mayor admitted that after Tropical Storm Irene and the Halloween snowstorm last year, he felt the city could not experience a worse weather system.
“Boy was I wrong,” Gerbounka said this week, adding that Sandy hit the city twice as hard as both those storms together.
Reflecting back, the mayor tries to shake off the emotions that arose when he rode through the streets of the city the night of the storm and the following day.
“Around 9 p.m., the weather started to get real ugly. Soon trees were being toppled throughout Linden, falling on houses and knocking down power lines,” the mayor said, adding that when transformers started blowing up it appeared as though lightening was illuminating the night sky.
“Needless to say at a certain point there were no street lights and only one traffic light in the entire city was functional,” he added, pointing out that nearly 90 percent of Linden was plunged into darkness that would last more than a week for some residents. But that was just the beginning of the devastation that would hit this middle class community.
“Mother nature hit us with the second punch. A 15-foot storm surge generating from the Arthur Kill hit the Tremely Point area of our city,” Gerbounka said, recalling in a somber tone what took place immediately afterward.
“In 25 minutes four members of our public works crew went from working in a dry municipal building to four-feet of water,” he said, explaining that these city workers managed to save the majority of city vehicles, barley managing to escape flood waters by driving out in a front end loader with three men riding in the bucket.
The public works building sustained considerable flood damage, including the loss of a boiler that was just a year old. After an inventory, two dump trucks and three pickup trucks also were added to the loss list.
“All the electrical wiring in the offices has to be replaced,” Gerbounka explained, mentioning that this could be the reason residents thought someone was hanging up on them when they called for assistance after the storm. That problem, the mayor added, has been corrected and the old number now has been installed at the public works’ new location.
Gerbounka grows quiet and reflective before talking about the damage to the Tremely Point area, because there is no easy way to avoid talking about 25 homes that took on four feet of water, with many losing foundations.
“Many homes are currently uninhabitable,” the mayor said quietly, pausing a moment before adding that most who sustained this damage immediately began assessing the damage, rolling up their sleeves and throwing out all their belongings, along with tearing out sheet rock to the studs. Still others had to bear even more severe damage.
Several homes also had damage from, he said, 500 pounds of railroad ties “that were tossed around like toothpicks,” Gerbounka said, noting that many were found in backyards of homes and jammed into foundations.
“Spectra Energy, the corporation responsible for putting in a new 48-inch gas pipeline is assuming responsibility for any damage caused by their equipment,” the mayor explained. But that still did not lessen the shock at what took place.
“I personally witnessed two of these railroad ties sitting in a homeowner’s backyard right next to but not touching their foundation,” Gerbounka said, adding that this particular property was surrounded by a four-foot fence and that had absolutely no damage to it.
Homes along the two-block area of Emma Place had flooded basements, with one home even losing one side of the foundation due to the force of the storm surge that tore through this segregated section of the city. The surge made it impossible for emergency vehicles to get to this area, something that still is difficult for the mayor to discuss.
“During the night of the storm a woman suffered a heart attack but emergency personnel could not reach her,” he said. “There was four-feet of water in the road besides a two-foot wide tree which also knocked down a live power line.”
The resident did manage to hang in there until the floodwater receded and today the mayor is happy to report she is doing okay.
“As if all these problems were not enough, an odor of oil permeated the area the next day,” Gerbounka said, adding that Phillips 66, a major corporation in the Tremely Point area, discovered a spill of slop oil from a regulated, DEP-permitted holding area on their property.
The mayor said the storm surge also created a surface oil spill in the Rose Hill Cemetery property that covered tombstones. Oil also seeped into homeowners yards and cellars bordering the back of the cemetery property. Since then, Phillips 66 has cleaned up the spill.
Gerbounka confessed Sandy left the city crippled, and that came as quite a blow to everyone.
“What added insult to injury to these poor homeowners is that they just returned to normalcy after sustaining severe flood damage from Tropical Storm Irene 14 months ago,” he said.
Gerbounka also was daunted by the heavy damage in the industrial section of Tremely Point from the storm surge.
“Phillips 66, CITGO, NuStar, Bulk Transport and the PSE&G generating station all had considerable damage, but most are up and running now on a limited basis,” he added.
Still, thinking back to the night of the storm, the mayor recalled just how frightening it became out in the industrial area.
“During the night of the surge it was impossible to proceed over the Turnpike bridge,” Gerbounka said, explaining that five PSE&G employees working at the generating station were trapped on high ground, unable to be rescued until flood waters receded.
“The next day I surveyed the damage with our emergency management personnel and on South Wood Avenue between he entrance to NuStar and the Arthur Kill, everything imaginable was blocking the roadway. Whether it was industrial debris or anything that floated in the Arthur Kill, it was there,” he said, adding that included in the accumulation were 21, 30-foot boats belonging to Clear Venture.
“They removed them from the Kill to dry dock only to have the storm surge wash them away,” the mayor said.
“One rail car parked on the Chemical Coast rail line was actually visible from our turnpike bridge laying in the slow lane of the north bound lanes of the interstate highway,” he said.
The roadway was closed due to flooding that night between exits 12 and 13.
Gerbounka said Sandy definitely tested Linden’s emergency response services but through this experience they all learned some valuable lessons, some of which will be discussed at a later date when everyone has been debriefed.
“Some of the most apparent problems that quickly surfaced are that we need a better way to communicate with our residents without relying on electricity,” the mayor said, adding that cell phone numbers and battery-operated radios are alternatives, among other options.
The mayor also said that they learned the city needs more emergency generators located in strategic buildings in addition to the police and fire departments. Residents living on the south side of Routes 1 and 9 also need flood relief on a short and long term basis.
Although it has been a month since the storm, Gerbounka still cannot shake the images of the night of the storm and the days that followed. Most of all, his heart goes out to all those who suffered severe damage to their homes.
“There is nothing I can say that will ease the hurt and pain other than we will help you as much as humanly possible to rebound from this tragedy,” the mayor said quietly. “Most residents of Linden were inconvenienced by superstorm Sandy, but we should count our blessings. No one was killed or injured due to the storm. All one has to do is look across the Arthur Kill to the severe damage done by the surge on Staten Island or farther down south to the Jersey shore.”