Leadership

Alfred Gerber III: Hurricane Sandy Lessons Learned One Year Later: What Have We Learned?

BY ALFRED GERBER III

It’s been a year since the dreaded Sandy super storm bashed the Eastern Coast of New Jersey, and the emergency services are still picking up the pieces and attempting to put their lives back together.

Adding to the frustration of trying to rebuild their fire houses, police stations, and ambulance buildings is that the emergency services are finding conditions reminiscent of some 20 or 30 years ago when they respond to calls from the general public.

Although some people in the storm-stricken communities have pushed themselves to get back on track, many have virtually given up and are simply existing in their storm-battered homes–some with just the bare necessities of heat and light. Many people have refused to accept the fact that their homes are now havens for diseases associated with the growth of mold, not to mention anything else, that may have been in the water as it filled basements and low-level first floors in northeastern New Jersey.

Countless basements still have water marks on the walls, making it evident that after the water was pumped out and the debris removed, the floors and walls were never thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Making matters much worse, the fire departments are responding to homes (mostly rentals) where the electrical circuit box had been submerged during the height of the flood and was never checked by a licensed electrician after the water receded. Also, there are thousands of electrical outlets and switches that have not been properly checked.

Some residents salvaged appliances like refrigerators, freezers, and washing machines without considering that the water that inundated their homes was basically caustic–a mixture of fresh, sewer, and salt water that had high traces of various petroleum products and other chemicals. These appliances, once dried out, may work now, but the damage will start to show itself soon. In short, the emergency services will see a rise in electrical-related responses in the near future.

Some vehicles were flooded, but not to the point where the owners reported them to the insurance company; the owners believed that the water did not reach the dash and that everything would be fine as soon as the rest of the interior dries. This is far from the truth; the insurance companies issued warnings that the biggest danger would be the untimely activation of the air bags while the vehicle is in motion caused by the salt in the water corroding the contacts of the air bag system and eventually causing them to deploy.

One of our biggest threats is that instead of waiting for the contractors to come and competently make repairs, many people are making the repairs themselves. This is not to say that the average homeowner should not attempt to put up drywall, plumbing and electrical work should be left to a licensed professional, or at least the work should be checked prior to closing the walls. Towns require a permit to do the work so that the work is inspected for safety purposes.

Another electrical hazard the fire departments will be facing is the proliferation of generators in homes; many homeowners will not have them properly installed by licensed electricians. Purchasing a transfer switch is not the way to go. It is important to consider the amount of power needed to run the essential appliances in the house, and the switch must be installed properly and inspected prior to use. The generator must be large enough to power the system and, at the same time, deliver clean electric current so it will not damage sensitive equipment like the pilot controls on the furnace, stove, and hot water heater.

Many people attempt to operate these units with older generators that are not precisely tuned for today’s high-tech equipment, and the sensitive appliances will not work. Another concern is the storage of gasoline for the generators. During Sandy, people were desperately attempting to get fuel because most of the fueling stations were closed for almost a week because of the power outage. Responders will be finding three or more five-gallon fuel containers stored in garages and sheds.

The majority of the debris has been cleared away, and many properties look as if nothing ever happened from the exterior–that’s the appearance from the curb. However, many properties still have piles of debris out of sight in the backyard, and many sheds and detached garages are packed with storm-battered items the property owners have not been able to get to yet because they are concentrating on repairing their houses.

At some locations, there are two sheds in the same yard that were packed prior to the storm whose doors have not been opened since then. In fact, I asked six homeowners on the same street about their progress; all six said that they have not checked their sheds and garages since the storm one year ago. Besides lawn and garden equipment, most sheds contain fertilizers, fuel, and numerous chemical and organic garden and lawn aids that have been destroyed by the water. It’s not hard to imagine what the condition inside these structures must be. For example, one shed that had been cleaned out only weeks after the storm needed to be power washed and scrubbed because every bag and box of lawn and garden food and fertilizer coated the entire interior of the shed. On a brighter note, the vines and flowers surrounding the shed are growing at a fantastic rate.

One effect of the storm that is evident is that the ambulance crews have been responding to more respiratory-related emergencies than normal. Every day, the tones go in for a resident experiencing difficulty breathing and chest pains. This may be a result of many people not leaving their homes after the storm and not having had heat for weeks. Some did not have heat until the middle of December, some six weeks after the storm. I discovered one rental residence that as of this writing still does not have an operational furnace; the landlord refuses to replace it. The occupants stated that they were told that the house was being sold, that they should use space heaters, and that repair or replacement of the furnace would be the new owner’s problem.

Some people relied on wood stoves shortly after the storm. Normally, this is not a problem in our community, but people were burning wood that had been contaminated by the flood water. Every time someone used the wood stove, the entire neighborhood was inundated with a chemical odor, and there are still stock piles of this contaminated wood waiting for autumn and winter.

Some people are attempting to be more proactive in preparing their homes: They are installing extra pumps in basements and mounting more high shelves on the walls. The basic attitude is to keep the floor free of anything that would be destroyed by getting wet. Even the garden apartments have instituted this policy as a standard for tenant storage in the basements. This is a great concept, because in the past many storage basements were overpacked and that in itself created a hazard.

Yet, some people just cannot accept the fact that it will happen again. Maybe it may not be as bad, but there will be more floods. People who were spared by just a few feet seem to feel that they are exempt from anything that may happen in the future. It’s a proven fact that the weather in this part of New Jersey has been getting worse as the years go by. Perhaps, these people should look realistically at what happened just across the street and begin preparing for the worst.

Besides the rebuilding of the firehouses and replacing the gear and equipment lost a year ago, we have been taking proactive steps toward the next Mother Nature event. Training and equipment for such events are no longer on the back burner. In fact, besides the regular training that has always been a priority, fire departments are now adding to their water rescue gear and getting more advanced training for dealing with these types of emergencies.

Little Ferry has taken a no-holds-barred attitude toward the next Mother Nature strike. In addition to replacing the damaged equipment and repairing the firehouses, we have made repairs and replacements anticipating that we may face rising water again. Walls and floors are being sealed and waterproofed, nonessential equipment and stock items are high off the ground, and there are higher locations quickly temporarily relocating items that cannot get wet.

We have taken a new attitude toward being prepared. Without going through the entire incident management system chart over and over again, we all know that when we think of being prepared, the functional position of planning comes up. This is something they should teach in high school. I’m not saying that every teenager should take National Incident Management and I-100 and I-200, but the functional aspects of planning should be part of the curriculum.

Thinking about Super Storm Sandy on October 29, 2012, we all saw how many people would not have been in such peril if they had done some planning. Planning is vital to the success of any situation whether it’s an emergency or not. A simple gathering to watch a football game could become catastrophic if there were no refreshments or if the power went out during the last few minutes of the game. This may sound silly, but how many times have you been in a situation where something has gone wrong and you were not prepared for it? Most of the time, we can just shrug it off and continue to move  forward, but what happens when it’s something beyond the norm and you are unable to muddle through?

October has become a cruel month. Over the past two years, the weather has left its mark as it tore through, creating major damage and chaos.  On October 30, 2011, Northern Jersey was struck with an ice storm that left utility poles and trees on the ground for weeks. This year, October brought heavy rain storms to New Jersey, and on October 2, South Dakota suffered the worst blizzard it has seen in years.

Two weeks prior to the blizzard, the temperature during the day was in the 70s, and only one day delivered a light rain. Two days prior to the blizzard, the weather men were predicting rain. Little did anyone know Mother Nature was setting us up for a wallop! The blizzard hit South Dakota about seven weeks before any snow would be expected. The storm delivered horizontal snow with 70-mile-per-hour winds for close to 36 hours, leaving the western part of the state trapped. This was the worst storm they have had in more than 40 years.

Four days later, a resident from Hill City stated, “I have never seen weather like this; nobody was prepared for it, and the worst part is that as it melts, we are now expecting major flooding in many of the lower areas.” More than 65,000 thousand residents were still without power, and the power company could not get to most of the damaged poles and wires because the roads were still blocked. The major problem was that the snow-removal equipment still needed to be dug out in most of the area.

Mother Nature acts in strange ways. As the blizzard ripped through the western part of the state, the eastern half was enjoying temperatures in the 70s. The emergency services were having a hard time attempting to get their vehicles down the snow-packed roads. Making matters worse, the emergency responders could not get to their buildings with their own vehicles. The longer it took to plow the streets, the worse it got as the temperatures had risen into the 60s and the melting snow only made the removal harder. The warmer it got, the heavier the snow became. Most roads became totally impassable; the snow seemed to turn into wet concrete. The few plows that were able to get out early were being replaced with heavier equipment because the plows could not move the snow once it began to melt into a heavy mixture of snow, ice, and water.

The larger equipment was able to clear the main roads, but the majority of the roads were narrow, and many were dirt and winding up and down the mountains, bringing the removal attempts in many places to a halt.

I survived the Sandy storm in Jersey with 15 days of no electricity, only to be followed by months of cleanup and repairs to my home, with much more to do. I took a two-week vacation with my wife so we could forget about Little Ferry, New Jersey, for a little while. I am writing this four days after our flight was supposed to take us home, sitting at the table in the cabin I rented on top of a mountain. We have no way out.

The property owners, the nicest people you would ever want to meet, did everything possible to clear a path down the mountain. Mother Nature was relentless; the roads remained impassable. Henry, the property owner, was the first to say we were not prepared for this, but I will get you two down, and he did, but not in the conventional way. Later that day, my wife was taken down by snowmobile. The next day, I was relocated by way of an ATV. It took more than two hours to make it down the mountain.

Once we were off the mountain, we realized the destruction that was everywhere. I noted that the residents of the area conducted many of the rescues. The residents were using their resources and getting things done.

That’s when I started to realize the true power of Mother Nature. It’s not the power of the strike. It’s the unpredictability of when she strikes and how long the event lasts. All of our enemies have arsenals, but the weather has more up its sleeve than anyone can imagine. Heavy rain can turn into floods, high winds cause tree and pole damage and cause tidal surges on the coastline, large landlocked lakes like Ontario cause what’s called lake effect snow even when there are no clouds in the sky. These are just a few examples of Mother Nature’s arsenal; what make matters even worse is that it does not matter where you live. We are all susceptible to her wrath.

We respond to weather emergencies all the time. Unfortunately, sometimes it catches us off guard. One way to ensure this does not happen is to be prepared for the worst she can throw our way, not in the firehouse but in our own homes. We need to make sure our homes are safe and our families know what to do while we are responding throughout our communities helping others deal with the wrath of nature. Many times we say we are okay, but in reality we are not because we have not thought out a plan and walked it through with our families. It never occurs to us that we are as vulnerable as the community we serve.

Take a few moments, sit down with your family, and put together a plan of action that will ensure their safety while you’re responding to help others who may not be able to help themselves. If nothing else, you will enhance your effectiveness because you will have cleared your head of the worries related to the safety of your families and homes.

BIO

ALFRED GERBER III is a 36-year veteran of the fire service and a member of the Little Ferry (NJ) Fire Department, where he serves as safety and training officer. He has been a full-time senior fire instructor for the Bergen County Law and Public Safety Institute for the past 25 years. He has a BA in individualized studies and he is a certified public manager.