Local officials described in dramatic detail the work of rescue and rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, as state senators listened to how the Jersey Shore is grappling with widespread devastation and how to improve for the future.
“This is flooding, devastation, I’d never have imagined in my lifetime,” said Toms River Police Chief Michael Mastronardy, one of the first panelists detailing specific anecdotes and financial spending in response to Hurricane Sandy.
The panelists were called by the state Senate Budget Committee, held in Toms River Monday. It was the first of several meetings aiming to equip senators with a better understanding as the state figures out how to fund the rebuilding of a collapsed infrastructure and to improve it in preparation of future superstorms.
Mayors, state and local police and officials were called, each describing the “human misery…much of which is still left to be calculated,” said State Police Col. Joseph R. Fuentes, as well as the dollars and cents that has so far totaled $35 million in Toms River alone and $29.4 billion statewide.
Mastronardy, speaking on the large number of rescues needed in Toms River, both the mainland and waterfront, said the hours during the storm were “horror stories, one after the other.”
The Toms River police chief was one on a long list of local and state officials who described destruction during the storm, in the days following, and what the continued consequences will be in the future.
Getting thousands back into homes destroyed by the storm, reconnecting miles of pipes, fighting quickly spreading mold, and paying millions of bills were just some of the issues officials described of a post-Sandy New Jersey.
How to Improve Emergency Response
But state senators also called the hearing to build a better infrastructure and response, they said.
“One of the things we can do better is communication with the community,” Mastronardy said.
State senators wanted to know what sort of rescue equipment did local police and emergency responders need to conduct a widespread emergency rescue operation, with surging floods.
M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) said the so-called “100-year storms” are coming much more frequently. How to best prepare?
“You didn’t have the equipment necessary that was emergent. We are seeing storms more and more,” Ruiz said. “There has to be severe investment to recover…but also prepare by purchasing the necessary equipment.”
Mastronardy said the amount of equipment that could satisfy a storm seemed incalculable.
“I needed the whole navy to rescue,” said the Toms River police chief. “We used jet skis, kayaks, canoes, everything we could use to get to people. Front end loaders of public works – they were the only things high enough.”
Mastronardy emphasized that for future storms, state and local officials and utilities need to figure out how to better their communication systems, both for emergency responders and to the public.
“We were lacking communication, quite frankly,” Mastronardy said. “People get frustrated when they don’t know.”
Mastronardy feared local police departments could see widespread reports of missing copper pipes as residents slowly return and rebuild to areas such as the barrier island of Ocean County and coastal Monmouth. “We need some more time here. Our big issue now is to get the trash out of there.”
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) chairing the meeting today, said local officials are on the front lines in places such as Route 37 in Toms River as hundreds of barrier island residents from other towns line up to assess the devastation to their homes and businesses.
“You are the gatekeeper of that bridge,” Sarlo said.
While Mastronardy said the lines have been hours, and that big trucks full of sand and construction equipment, and multiple checkpoints in place, the emphasis is on both safety as well as getting people to see their homes.
“These people are victims, we want to get them in there as soon as possible.” Mastronardy said. “We had a recipe for disaster, but no one in the barrier island died or had serious injury. And we want to keep it that way during re-entry.”
Emergency Appropriations and Widespread Property Damage
Toms River Township Administrator Paul Shives urged the state to improve communication to townships from the state tax assessors.
With 225 homes in Toms River completely gone from the storm, and widespread private property damage, thousands of residents have come forward wanting to know how to pay taxes on a property that doesn’t exist, for example.
“We want to tell them the accurate information from the state,” said Shives who a called for a uniform policy and communication for tax assessment.
Shives urged for a more permanent solution than the previous dune protection measures, and instead hoped for rebuilding with the Army Corps of Engineers involved.
“We want to rebuild the dunes to save and protect what’s there,” Shives said.
There needs to be state hearings on how the utilities responded, too, Shives said. “JCP&L did not give us accurate information,” Shives said, as Toms River saw tens of thousands without power still a week after the storm.
Just to cover emergency costs, Toms River approved $35 million in emergency appropriation bonds.
Sarlo said that in the coming weeks he’d expect many more towns to come forward with their expenses. “We’re going to hear from people from Belmar, Manasquan on these appropriations,” Sarlo said.
Sen. Jennifer Beck described how along the Shrewsbury River, in Sea Bright and in countless marinas along the shore, so many new channels emerged and so many boats are still unmoored.
“I’m surprised to see them out there, boating today,” Beck said. “What are the issues here?”
Fuentes said boaters are becoming surprised when their maritime radar shows new depths they are not accustomed to. It’s just one more aftereffect of Hurricane Sandy.
“I know the boating industry is looking at this as one of the biggest tragedies to their industry,” Fuentes said.
Fuentes said more than 400 troopers from out of state came to New Jersey’s aid.
Senators worried about mold issue long term.
Shives said the local inspectors using expanded work hours and working with the department of community affairs is helping to mediate the mold issues. Shives said the mold is a tremendous concern now and as time progresses.
Fuentes said state police mobilized on countless levels: helicopters patrolling the barrier islands, officers serving at checkpoints for security, patrols using night vision goggles to better police areas in widespread blackouts.
Fuentes detailed how state roads and transportation as well as gas rationing, were additional duties.
"This summary does not convey the full work of the OEM community and the heroics…nor does it properly convey the spectrum of human misery that has still be be calculated by this storm," Fuentes said.
Multiple Mayors Respond to Senate Questions
“Toms River was hit hard. But Brick Township was hit hard. Belmar was hit hard, Union Beach was hit hard,” Sarlo said, as he introduced a second set of local officials from those towns.
“No picture no video will do this justice,” Brick Mayor Stephen Acropolis said. Brick Township’s eastern facing mainland homes saw five-foot waves crash into them.
There were 109 homes burned to the ground or were destroyed, said the Brick Township mayor. With 6,000 homes damaged, $400 million in ratables affected, $50 million in cleanup costs, Brick has the largest amount of waterfront property in Ocean County, said the mayor.
“We have debris floating 30-40 yards still floating in lagoons behind peoples homes, we’ve got to get this addressed,” Acropolis said. “People use the bay, it’s a huge issue for us. It can’t be about dredging the channels, it has to be about removing the debris.”
He urged for a streamlining of the CAFRA process. Termite certification is needed for this area as homes are repaired for mold, but out-of-state contractors might not know those local laws, Acropolis said. “The state needs to look into that,” he said, and he went on to praise the National Guard assistance and suggesting the impact of proper cell phone towers and use of social media to better spread information.
"If you look at Brick Township model of repopulating the barrier island, with buses with security, when residents go back out there there is a level of personal responsibility…you don’t want to have a fatality where someone is going somewhere and ends up getting hurt,” said the mayor.
Acropolis also expressed frustration with JCP&L. The mayor said the utility called to ask him if power was on at a Brick elementary school. “You’re calling me, and you’re the electric company?” Acropolis said.
Acropolis said in the coming weeks as power goes back on in reconnected areas, he’s worried about electrical fires. “Salt water and copper don’t mix,” Acropolis said, but he wishes the electric company would do a better job of saying where they are about to reconnect power. “They haven’t done that.”
Sarlo commended Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty for the borough's work after the storm, which included $20 million in emergency appropriations.
Hurricane Sandy "destroyed 60 percent of our town," Doherty said. "It was fast and furious."
Doherty detailed the dredging of lakes, council action, work with public safety officials and more. The borough worked leading up to the storm, calling for the evacuation of all of Belmar.
"I ordered the first-ever mandatory evacuation of the entire town," Doherty said, after hearing National Weather Service forecaster say that Hurricane Sandy would be like nothing no one alive had ever seen. "He was dead on."
Ocean County Officials Detail Issues
While town-specifics are important, Sarlo said, addressing issues on a county level is essential.
"Going forward these folks are going to rely more on the counties," said Sarlo introducing Ocean County Administrator Carl Block and Freeholder John Bartlett.
Bartlett detailed how a county-wide contract for debris removal is "an offer you can't refuse," which was offered to Ocean County towns to cover the costs of debris removal through its contract with two companies.
"These two are experts in the field of debris clean-up, we will assume the clean-up," Bartlett said. "The county in its financial strength will upfront the costs."
A third of the tax base of Ocean County is along the barrier island. "That's not to say we've sufferred complete destruction, but it's significant," Bartlett said.
"From Point Pleasant to Holgate to Long Beach Island — 44 miles of oceanfront, and then the bayside and then the mainland. It's tremendous," said the freeholder.
In some cases, tax bases have nearly completely washed away, Bartlett said. He asked the state senate to consider short-term tax stabilization. He asked that realty transfer fees that the county collects should stay in county and be used for rebuilding costs.
"The barrier island did not do what the good lord meant them to do, to be a barrier," Bartlett said. "The water came right over the top."
County Adminstrator Carl Block said there needs to be guidelines for land use and dune protection.
"We're getting questions now, what can I do to my house," Block said. "We've got houses that are now on a dune, that weren't, what do they do...The dune goes away, the dune comes back, can you build there. The state needs to know now."
In addition to this unique situations, the county had to run polling places for the November election. Block said there were 24 polling places in Ocean County operating on a generator.
Block foresees $100 million in contracts for the emergency, debris removal and longtime work for Ocean County.
Block and Bartlett said it's important to work with the state Department of Environmental Protection to figure out how to rebuild areas of widespread destruction, where the natural history of the area has changed and older and newers structures both crumbled.
In some cases the infrastructure is very old. "Freeholder Lacey told me a utility pole snapped near his house. It was built in 1937," Bartlett said.
Sarlo said "we're going to have to find a way to rebuild smartly. New Jersey's economy is built on tourism."