Rising Together Report
by Stephen Marks
10/03/2022 | 4:58 pm
What Happened: In March of 2012, I went to work for the City of Hoboken (Hudson County) as the Assistant Business Administrator (i.e. Assistant City Manager). I was a licensed professional urban planner and a certified floodplain manager, who had worked on Hudson County's All Hazards Mitigation Plan, so I was familiar with the region's vulnerabilities. I had no idea that less than eight months into my tenure that all of my personal and professional abilities would be tested to the max.
As mostly everyone knows, Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey on October 29, 2012. I was safe at home with my family a few miles west in Kearny, N.J. when the storm hit. We lost power and spent the night hearing wind gusts that sounded like freight trains passing overhead. I was concerned that the mature oak tree above our house would surely collapse into our bedroom, so my family spent the night in our downstairs living room. It did not, but the next morning our neighborhood was littered with downed trees and limbs everywhere. I drove into work early the next morning through an obstacle course of local roads and Routes 3 and 495 through Weehawken.
Hoboken was still visibly flooded from my approach from the north. I navigated to Hoboken City Hall where a makeshift emergency response center was established, however, there were no lights or electricity. A guy from Lansdowne, Pennsylvania had a pick-up truck with a bunch of home generators in the back which he offered to sell. I immediately wrote a bill of sale on a scrap piece of paper for six or eight thousand dollars and city hall's emergency operations center had lights and power for the next few days until bigger generators arrived. After assessing the situation, roughly 80% of Hoboken was flooded with brackish water from the Hudson River and was polluted by the city's combined sewer system mixed with leaking home heating oil from underground storage tanks and lots of litter and debris. Hoboken's three electrical substations were all heavily damaged and coincidentally about 80% of the city was in total darkness at night. Thousands of Hoboken's "Garden style" ground level apartments were flooded and the residents were displaced and needed to be evacuated.
It took Mayor Dawn Zimmer pleading with Governor Chris Christie to send in the National Guard before they were activated. The N.J. National Guard arrived like the cavalry with 25,000 MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) and high water vehicles to evacuate thousands of stranded residents. I worked 18 hour days for nearly two weeks straight from October 30, 2012 to Veterans Day November 11, 2012 (without a penny of overtime or moment of comp time). I remember driving around after midnight in a high water vehicle with N.J. Guardsmen scouting where to place mobile water pumps for maximum effect. It took a couple of weeks for the flood waters to recede via catch basins and drainage inlets. It also took several weeks for all of the power to be restored to the entire city by PSEG which used utility workers from as far away as Kansas and Canada to repair the substations and restore electricity.
For weeks, I worked with the Hoboken Police Department, Hoboken Fire Department, Hoboken Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Hoboken's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to provide essential services to Hoboken's residents and businesses. I delivered hundreds of meals and prescriptions to homebound senior citizens and the disabled. I attended daily briefings with FEMA, state, county and local emergency responders. Without power, cell phone antennas and service failed, so for weeks, we posted daily updates on bulletin boards and conducted daily briefings to residents in front of city hall. When the power was out, the Hoboken Fire Department conducted "Fire Watch" in neighborhoods around the city. When the city ran low on diesel fuel, we commandeered untaxed (red) diesel fuel just to keep our fire engines/apparatus running. The generator powering the police and fire radio tower would require constant fueling and at some points the radio system failed. Police officers and fire fighters would have to communicate point-to-point around the city. When the flood waters finally receded and the power was restored, everything was covered in an oily slick. When residents began putting their damaged furniture and construction materials to the curb, the city collected over 7,000+ tons of trash and debris. For months after storm, residents would complain to the Health Department about black mold and the lingering health effects of living in flood damaged apartments.
Finally, people mean well. Days after the storm tanker trucks full of gasoline arrived and started doling out free gasoline to anyone with a container. People lined up with gas cans, Arizona Ice Tea containers and even pickle jars to get 'free gas'. One woman who lived in an apartment on Bloomfield Street and did not own a car got a can of gasoline and brought it back to her apartment which she was heating with her oven. Luckily, her neighbors smelled gasoline in the hallway and called the Fire Department. The tanker truck was asked to leave by the Fire Department. In addition, there was a convoy of supplies that were delivered to Hoboken by the Cape May Volunteers. The coordinator from Cape May called it a "caravan of love". However, when the relief supplies were delivered, it turned out to be two tractor trailer loads of used clothing, second hand books and toys and porcelain figurines (maybe 2% of the load by volume was food and/or water). I remember the Borough President of Staten Island having a press conference to tell people to STOP donating used clothing. Donations of non-essential items were squandering valuable staff time and resources.
When Did it Happen: 2012-10-29
How Did it Affect You: The Superstorm Sandy experience was formative for my career. After Superstorm Sandy, the American Planning Association (APA) facilitated a tour of Holland to showcase the Netherlands' flood management and mitigation strategies. I went at my own expense and the experience was "eye opening". When I returned, I prepared a 12 Point Resiliency Plan (https://www.dvrpc.org/Resiliency/HMP/pdf/2016-04-25_Stephen_Marks_Presentation.pdf) for the City of Hoboken which went on to eventually become the city's "Rebuild By Design" proposal. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was appointed to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan's Sandy Recovery Task Force. I provided staff support and technical assistance to the task force and got to attend meetings in the White House.
Did The Experience Change How You Think About Flooding: Our society's systems and infrastructure are more vulnerable than we can imagine. Floods and natural disasters can have cascading consequences. It is critical that we communicate to people about their true risk factors. Considering Hurricane Ian's impact on Southwest Florida (Fort Myers, Naples, Sanibel, etc.) a few degrees change in direction can make all the difference. Some communities and officials are extremely cavalier about "personal responsibility" when it could save lives. On the other hand, the CDC's communication of risk during the early days of the pandemic was muted and contradictory for fear of scaring people. The government and business communities, especially the banking and insurance industries, must be clear about communicating true risk to residents and homeowners. This probably starts with requiring sellers/landlords to disclose if/when properties have been flood damaged in the past. Finally, FEMA, NOAA, the National Weather Service, state and local emergency first responders and meteorologists should work together to develop micro-targeting strategies (similar to Reverse 911 or Amber Alert, etc.) to warn anyone who is in the path of a storm or natural disaster (hurricane, tropical storm, storm cell, tornado, wildfire, flood, etc.).