UNION COUNTY — When Superstorm Sandy struck the county in late October 2012, the storm left unprecedented, devastating damage in its wake. The county wanted to ensure that if a storm of this magnitude ever hit the area again, they would have an emergency blueprint ready and waiting.
“The old adage ‘if we fail to plan, we plan to fail,’ is especially relevant given that destructive events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming the norm,” said Freeholder Chairman Christopher Hudak.
This report, county officials said, was paid for with a Department of Community Affairs grant with money obtained from federal Sandy recovery funds.
The sheer magnitude of the storm and the ripple effect from other parts of the state certainly put the county’s preparedness to the test. In response, the county immediately began working on a strategic recovery plan and blueprint that will serve to reduce any vulnerability should another storm like this ever hit the area again.
The plan, “Union County 2030,” released Aug. 12, takes a closer look at how municipalities were traumatized by Sandy and what could have been done better to ensure the safety of the county’s 543,976 residents.
Looking back, the county found that while all 21 municipalities experienced power outages to a certain degree, some lasting as long as two weeks, other towns had flooding so bad their homes were moved off the foundation by a tidal surge the likes of which had never been seen before.
Sandy also brought high wind speeds that caused an unprecedented number of trees to fall throughout the county. In many locations, the county said, this caused damage and destruction to properties, uprooted infrastructure and blocked streets.
Emergency services were therefore hindered because crews could not reach all streets until trees were cleared and that was no easy feat.
Although the county discovered that no particular area was actually cut off from road access for more than six or seven hours, many trees brought down power lines. Even after downed trees were cleared, which in some cases took days, power and transportation problems persisted.
Because utility crews were stretched to the limit shutting power to downed wires, rebuilding destroyed substations and replacing damaged poles, it took much longer to restore power.
The county also noted that these power outages left major intersections without signals, hospitals were left on emergency generators for extended periods of time, businesses were shut down and local government officials struggled to communicate with residents.
Further complicating the matter was the lack of accessibility of both gasoline and diesel fuel. Although a number of generators were available, the shortage of fuel and inability to pump what was on hand “made a bad situation worse,” the county said.
The county also pointed out in their report that Union County’s anticipated population growth serves as a vulnerability because growth in towns such as Rahway, Linden and Elizabeth have areas that are prone to damage from Sandy-type storms.
For example, in Linden, which has over one-third of its land in a flood hazard area and experienced significant flooding during Superstorm Sandy and after, officials can expect to grow by 5,000 more residents by 2040.
Elizabeth which has over one-third of its land located in a flood hazard area, can expect about 15,000 more residents by the same year.
“Everyone waited in line at service stations to fill vehicles and canisters,” the report said, adding that this was “reminiscent of the fuel shortages in the early 1970s.”
Some county towns faced serious flooding because the Rahway River peaked at 12 to 13 feet. The heavily industrialized area along the Arthur Kill in Linden was especially hard hit by 12- to 14-foot tidal surges over a three to four day period.
The hardest hit town was Linden, though, with 13 percent of the population receiving major or serious damage to their property or structure.
Communication and coordination, county officials said, was a vulnerability during Sandy, although the report noted that communication between public, county and municipal officials was “very effective” post-Sandy.
However, there were limitations and gaps in communication and coordination between county personnel and utility company personnel who were out in the field. This created problems in recovery efforts and inefficiencies in response.
“The people providing first hand aid throughout the county had no clear cut procedures for communicating with each other across public-private boundaries,” the report noted, adding that as a result, certain energy and transportation problems persisted longer than necessary.
For example, Central Avenue at the Clark-Westfield border, which usually supports 4,000 cars an hour and 24,000 cars a day, became inaccessible after Sandy. The problem resulted because power companies could not effectively transmit or emphasize the importance of this area to their field workers. Because of this, the thoroughfare was the last road in the county to reopen.
Also cited as an issue was the fact that during the tree removal process, the county department of public works had 40 forestry service workers ready and waiting for clearance to begin cutting and clearing trees from power lines and streets, but because of a lack of communication and effective procedures, they were unable to take action.
Instead they were sent to clear trees in the parks rather than in high risk, populated and priority areas.
Another issue that surfaced was when aid arrived in the county from other parts of the country, some of the out of state workers were not clearly directed where to go. This delayed these workers from getting out in the field and helping.
In general, the county report indicated, county and municipal personnel were spread thin after Sandy, because towns did not have enough services, money, or personnel to provide post-storm assistance to their residents.
“When this happened they had to request additional aid from the county, which further strained the county for resources and personnel,” the report noted, adding in other cases emergency shelters could have benefited from more qualified full-time personnel.
Afterward, as residents attempted to get back on their feet, the county worked to evacuate stranded residents, barricade flooded roads and hazards, clear fallen trees from roads and parks while holding daily conference calls with power suppliers and local mayors.
In the months that followed, the county discovered that while their emergency plan worked, it needed updating to address the things that did not go as smoothly or failed to address residents’ needs.
As a result, the county updated its Emergency Operation Plan, applied for grants to install emergency backup generators at key public facilities, and renovated the County Emergency Operations Center, among other things. Still, county officials felt they could do even better and set out to look closely at every facet of their emergency response.
The report showed that county property and business owners received recovery aid from many state and federal agencies.
Some municipalities were awarded funding from many different grants, all funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This included $770,000 from a homeowner’s settlement program, $1.6 million for homeowner reconstruction, rehabilitation, elevation and mitigation, $630,000 for landlord rental repair, $119,431 for landlord incentives, $3.7 million for neighborhood enhancement, and $664,433 for Sandy victim’s special needs housing.
Other residents received $650,000 in funding from the pre-development and Sandy Homebuyer Assistance program.
Looking even closer, county residents ended up receiving 99 home loans totaling $2.1 million, four business/economic injury disaster loans totaling $919,700 and six stand-alone economic injury disaster loans for $311,600.
The county was also awarded $1.4 million to date as part of the Sandy Homeowner/Rental Assistance Program.
The county’s effort to promote recovery from Superstorm Sandy and reduce vulnerabilities from future storms included evaluating options for evacuation by providing aid to vulnerable neighborhoods; resilient land use and land planning practices; analyzing Raritan Valley stream corridor development designs and redevelopment site plans; improvement of documenting work done during an emergency; development of a virtual emergency operation center; and a comprehensive recovery and resiliency plan designed to integrate and coordinate goals, objectives and strategies and actions.
The county, though, recognized this is just the first step in a comprehensive strategy to aid in recovery, reduce hazards and improve disaster resiliency in the county.
While the county has priorities laid out for moving forward to ensure response will be improved should another Superstorm hit the area, they are also well aware this is an ongoing process.
“Union County needs a blueprint for the future to compete in the global economy and part of that involved updating our infrastructure and emergency response capabilities to face the challenges posed by climate change,” said Hudak.