Lessons Learned to Be ‘Stronger than the Storm’

May 31, 2013
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By John Burton

In the more than seven months since Sandy battered the area, local officials have been learning a variety of lessons and incorporating them into policy and procedures for the future.

Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long has taken away quite a few lessons since the super storm devastated the oceanfront community which still has a sizable number of residents – including Long and her family – figuring out how to get back into their homes.

“In particular, what Sandy taught us is that having plans on the shelf in no way prepares you to deal with a true emergency,” she said.

Like every town, Sea Bright has an emergency management office and plan. But, that plan didn’t prepare the borough for the magnitude of what it faced, “like having the gas main badly damaged” and unable to be repaired for weeks afterwards, she said.

Officials now are re-evaluating plans, “to make them living documents as opposed to plans that sit on the shelf,” Long said.

Officials also are taking a look at all planning and zoning ordinances to ensure they help – and not hinder – people rebuilding homes and businesses. A major component of that rebuilding in Sea Bright is sustainability, elevating structures where possible and flood-proofing those that can’t, she said.

“It’s no news flash that Sea Bright is vulnerable to flooding and clearly there is an opportunity to mitigate risk as we go forward,” Long said.

That goes with the borough council adopting the advisory base flood elevations as recommended by the Fed­eral Emergency Manage­ment Agency (FEMA), a requirement to build.

“We want to mitigate the risk to property owners. We want to rebuild the infrastructure to sustain a super storm,” as part of the agenda to move forward, she said.

However, all this costs money, a lot of it. One of the major challenges to planning is obtaining funds to accomplish these goals, Long said.

“There are just so many challenges,” she said. “For me, personally, going forward, the most valuable lesson has been that of self-reliance,” she said. “You can’t wait for somebody to come and help you. I learned we have to help ourselves.”

The ribbon was cut at an early morning ceremony on Friday, May 24 by Monmouth Beach Mayor Susan Howard officially opening the Monmouth Beach Bathing Pavilion.

The ribbon was cut at an early morning ceremony on Friday, May 24 by Monmouth Beach Mayor Susan Howard officially opening the Monmouth Beach Bathing Pavilion.

While neighboring Mon­mouth Beach had damage from flooding, it sustained less than other waterfront communities. “We definitely believe in doing the right thing here,” said Mayor Susan Howard, noting her town has been adopting changes in long-term strategy for years, certainly since the 1992 storm that inflicted considerable damage.

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“If you’re going to live here – and it’s a great place to live – we need to be prepared. So we are,” she said.

The borough’s bathing pavilion, damaged by the storm surges, survived relatively well, due to renovations that were previously done to the structure. Following the storm, if one looked at the buildings along Ocean Avenue/Highway 36, “the Monmouth Beach bathing pavilion is the only one that still looked the same,” she said.

“It’s clear, if you build to current construction standards for hurricanes, then you will withstand the storm,” Howard said.

The borough governing body, like Sea Bright’s, has adopted the FEMA advisory elevation standards for future building. It required builders to raise structures 3 feet above the base flood level, she said. While the town has built previously to accommodate a 100-year storm, “we are building to the 500-year storm.”

There are about 250 structures that will have to be raised in the town to meet those standards.

Howard said she is committed to “helping people who’ve been hurt to do the right thing,” helping them apply for funds recently made available through the state’s Communi­ty Block Grant funding as well as look for other resources.

On average it costs about $100,000 per home to raise it. But doing it, “in the end, saves every taxpayer in the country money,” she believes.

Monmouth Beach officials are also looking at town-owned structures. All of them – the police station, borough hall, firehouse, first aid squad, library and cultural center – “went under water” with the storm, she said. They are looking at available funding to rectify that situation.

“We will develop a comprehensive plan of where we’re going to do when we know what assistance we’re going to get,” she said.

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Middletown, the county’s largest municipality with 42-square miles and more than 66,000 residents, had pockets of real devastation, primarily along the Bayshore waterfront, in areas of Port Mon­mouth, Belford, Leonardo and North Middletown.

“One of the things we really learned is that communication is key,” said Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger.

Initially the township website and phone alerts were very effective, but as the storm resulted in loss of power and Internet connections, it exposed some gaps that officials are looking to address.

One way is updating police communication equipment; another will be to use volunteer corps to a great effect to respond to the needs brought on by Sandy, he said.

Probably the most important lesson learned was establishing what will now be a permanent volunteer corps, Scharfenberger said.

After the storm, many residents came forward to offer assistance. Now with the permanent group in place to draw from, that means a quicker response time to help those in need, he said.

After the storm, officials realized a need for additional emergency equipment and were able to acquire some things, including U.S. military-surplus Humvees that will come in handy, especially for getting to flood-prone areas, Scharfenberger said.

Atlantic Highlands was spared the worst of it, because much of the community sits a little higher than some surrounding towns and because of plans put in place in response to Hurricane Irene a little more than a year before, Mayor Frederick J. Rast III said.

The borough was not entirely unscathed. Three homes needed to be demolished and another five or six had significant flooding. Because of the storm’s intensity, the municipal harbor sustained millions of dollars in damage and needed a complete rebuilding and overhaul.

The harbor manager and borough council are making changes with FEMA recommendations, including instal­ling movable structures and floating docks, which are better able to survive such storms.

The harbor, however, will not be ready for boaters until probably sometime in July, Rast said. Officials had hoped to have it operating by now for the busy summer season.

Ultimately, it comes down to planning, Rast said. “It went smoothly because we did a lot of preparation,” with the assistance of county and local state officials who stepped up, Rast said.

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