Are you better off than you were on Sept. 11? Offices of Emergency Management still working on preparedness – five years later

What would happen in Hoboken or Jersey City if a radioactive “dirty bomb” was detonated across the river in New York?

Should you huddle in your home, or escape by train or car?

Some local officials are loath to release emergency plans to the public, even five years after the Sept. 11 disaster.

They say they are putting the public at risk by answering certain questions. Is it better to know, or to not know how to respond?

Who has answers?

In March 2003, a Citizens Emergency Preparedness Council was created for Hoboken residents concerned about emergency preparedness in the city – but it hasn’t met in two years.

The council was chaired by Dr. Janet Larson, professor of English at Rutgers University/Newark and a Hoboken resident. Larson had come to numerous City Council meetings to ask about the city’s plans for catastrophes. The group, part of a federal effort, was to be an advisory board to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and provide knowledge to the public.

But because of a lack of communication and assistance from the city government, the council last met in 2004. “Hoboken residents are in a virtual information blackout,” Larson said last week. “The OEM coordinator, deputy coordinator, and mayor are the ones who control the information that is released to the public.”

According to Larson, the city’s part-time OEM Coordinator, Police Captain James Fitzsimmons, was often unreachable and wouldn’t release information to the public, including the Emergency Operations Plan for the city.

Last November, the City Council introduced an ordinance to hire a full-time deputy for Fitzsimmons, but the idea languished for eight months until it was brought again before the council at a meeting two weeks ago. Last week, Fitzsimmons admitted that there were and still are some communication issues among various parties, but he said he won’t release the text of the city’s Emergency Operations Plan. He said it would compromise the security of Hoboken residents.

He did say the plan includes details of populations, equipment, evacuation plans, and procedures.

“Some things are not getting off the ground as fast as possible,” Fitzsimmons said. “Preparedness never, ever ends.”

Jersey City smacked by feds

Things aren’t much different in Jersey City, which refuses to release its plan to the public for safety reasons, but got slapped by the federal government recently for not being prepared.

Two months ago, the federal Department of Homeland Security concluded that the city’s plan for responding to catastrophic disasters flunked 14 out of 45 benchmarks.

Following the release of that information, the city refused to release its report to the media. Mayor Jerramiah Healy did say that city officials would meet to respond to the problems cited by the federal government. But he also blamed a lack of funding, and said that Jersey City was far from the only community that was unprepared.

“I have been briefed on the National Plan Review conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, and have been advised by the Office of Emergency Management staff, and Captain McGill that our plan is in need of improvement,” said Mayor Healy in a statement last month. “New projects to be implemented include waterfront initiatives that will create exclusion zones and closed-circuit television monitoring to enhance security efforts along the waterfront area. The inadequacies mentioned are not unique to Jersey City, but speak for all of the 75 urban areas reviewed.”

According to a local daily newspaper, the federal government had found that the city “has not taken into account that more than 40 percent of its resident don’t own cars and rely on public transportation” and the plan didn’t include residents in hospitals or with special needs.

Last week, City Council president Mariano Vega Jr. said that the council will be working to fix the problems, and has created a subcommittee for homeland security.

According to Jack Burns, Hudson County’s OEM coordinator, Jersey City is already working internally to make changes to their Emergency Operations Plan.

“[Jersey City] is not as bad as everyone is making it out to be,” Burns said. “I can find holes in anyone’s plan. No one is perfect.”

Broadcasts for citizens

But Burns agreed that citizens should have more information about what is being done.

“The feedback we get from citizens is ‘Yes, you’re prepared, but we don’t know what we are doing,’ ” he said last week. “I’d rather scare the residents now and have them prepared. They’ll be less fearful during an emergency if they are prepared prior to it.”

County and local agencies are working on two fronts: One, coordinating their emergency response, and two, figuring out to how get information out to the public, both before and during emergencies. However, they are moving slowly on the second front.

County officials cited specific plans underway including creating a pamphlet for the public on emergency planning; creating a county AM radio station for emergency broadcasts, and even installing loud speakers in certain towns. Those plans have not yet come to fruition.

Every municipality, in accordance with its county and state Offices of Emergency Management, has a city/town-appointed coordinator for their respective OEM. Most are part-time.

Each municipal OEM is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the first responders at the scene of an emergency and educating the public of what to do in an emergency situation.

Dirty bomb

So what would happen if a radioactive “dirty bomb” exploded in New York City tomorrow?

A “dirty bomb” is a pack of explosives to which radioactive materials have been added in order to spread the effect. Obviously, the air in Hudson County’s towns, right across the river, would be affected.

According to Burns, New York has a plan for evacuation in case of a disaster. The population for all of NYC is segmented, and approximately 250,000 people could be sent to shelters in New Jersey via the Lincoln Tunnel, Holland Tunnel, and George Washington Bridge.

But how would it affect Hudson County residents? Should they stay in their homes, or flee?

“It depends on the incident and where it happens,” Burns said.

“The best advice initially for most things is stay in your home until you get further guidance,” said Gary Garetano, the assistant director of the Hudson Regional Health Commission, a countywide agency that is constantly dealing with bioterrorism preparedness. “If a dirty bomb were to blow up, [and] if you went outside and a radioactive dust cloud was passing, you might be exposing yourself more than in the house. You don’t need to duct tape everything, but shut the windows and doors and that sort of thing.”

The Hudson Regional Health Commission, based in Secaucus, has been involved in drills with hospitals, as well as attending the quarterly meetings that are constantly held with municipal emergency management coordinators in all towns. The HRHC has received extra funding since 2001 to deal with the health aspects of terrorism, including disease outbreaks and contamination.

Garetano said that local emergency planning has improved greatly in the last five years.

“There’s enhanced collaboration between all levels of government, municipal, county, state and federal, as well as between all disciplines,” Garetano said. “In 2001, we had very rare communications with hospitals. Now it’s almost daily. We’ve been participating in joint planning, exercises, and figuring out what’s going on.”

But how would you get instructions?

If there was a bioterrorism disaster, such as a dirty bomb or release of gas, would people be able to get further instructions right away?

Garetano and other officials cited various projects in progress.

The county will soon be setting up its own AM radio station. There is also a countywide phone calling system called Callmaster. Within the towns, Hoboken is researching a loudspeaker system, according to Fitzsimmons. It seems, however, that residents must wait a bit to see all of these plans enacted.

What if a dirty bomb was dropped tomorrow?

“Would there be confusion initially?” Garetano asked. “I would think right away there would be, but am I confident that we are prepared and on the same page and able to respond much more quickly than five years ago? The answer is yes.”

The HRHC has acquired ham radios to trade information among the government and volunteers in case other lines of communication are down, and there is a Health Alert Network to send information by e-mail to 3,500 doctors and other caregivers in terms of other health threats. An automated system will soon be implemented in 36 hospitals in Northeastern New Jersey’s six counties to alert health officials at any time of day if there is a spike in patients with certain diseases or complaints.

There is also an effort involving the HRHC and county OEM to install a radiation monitoring network to figure out which parts of the county are most affected if a bomb goes off.

There is also a countywide preparedness pamphlet underway for the public, Garetano said. “There are more meetings than you could imagine,” Garetano said.

What one resident would do

Hoboken’s Janet Larson, while stressing that she is not an expert, responded to a question of what she herself would do if there were a dirty bomb attack across the river.

“Whatever plans they have for evacuations have to be coordinated with New York City,” she said. “If there was a bomb, how would I know? I’d probably hear it. I might see a light in the sky. I would grab my getaway bag and probably go down to the basement where I have food stocked, and water and blankets. I also have a radio down there and batteries. I have worked out my own escape routes from town by car [if an escape was needed], but I doubt if I could use them. There would be huge traffic jams. There is also a radioactive cloud that would pass, and it would be better to wait in my house for about three days and wait for an all-clear. But I don’t know how the city will tell me it’s safe to come out. People should barricade themselves as best they can. What they need to reduce radioactivity is physical barriers. Windows on the basement should be covered somehow. Doors are not very thick. I think I’d cover drains…well, I’m not an expert, but that’s what I’d do. I have water in the basement. I’d probably take my cell phone down there, but cell phones [might not] be working. That’s something to mention for other types of emergencies.”

In a more serious nuclear attack, which would be more expansive than a dirty bomb, certain devices like cars would not work for a period of time.

“People whose clothes, for instance, are contaminated, will spread radioactive dust wherever they go,” Larson said. “This is a big reason the public needs to be informed ahead of time and given instructions from authorities immediately after an event. Public health authorities should be organized to deal with contamination incidents…It’s not automatic ‘curtains.’ ”

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have specific explanations on the Web for how to prepare for a “dirty bomb” and other terrorist attacks (see sidebar).

One thing that the Hoboken citizens’ group did before it disbanded was to host a countywide seminar for area residents on bioterrorist threats. It was held on a Saturday in May of 2004 in Hoboken, and was lightly attended. At the hearing, Garetano said, in response to questions about a dirty bomb, “There is a more significant threat from the [force of the] explosion, while the radiation is added to create fear and panic. It takes massive, massive doses [to hurt a large number of people].”

Monique Davis, a health educator with the HRHC, said that spreading infectious diseases, or bioterrorism, is less expensive for terrorists than other kinds. She said that health officials would become aware of bioterrorism if rare diseases like anthrax, ebola or smallpox got into the air or food supply.

The government has a National Pharmaceutical Stockpile in case of outbreaks of a certain disease, and Hudson County has run drills to see how quickly they could dispense drugs and treat the public from various “POD” (Point of Distribution) sites. During a recent drill at New Jersey City University, they were able to assist 1,000 people per hour.

Full-time help

Hoboken’s Fitzsimmons said that his office has a big project coming to aid communication issues. A company called PackeTalk has been contracted to place cameras around Hoboken, used primarily for the police.

“We [PackeTalk and the OEM] got to talking about loudspeakers,” Fitzsimmons said. “By setting up a wireless network for the cameras, you are put in a position where you can connect a loudspeaker system.”

Growing up in Hoboken, Fitzsimmons remembers the previous loudspeaker system when he was a child, which announced snow days and air raids.

According to Fitzsimmons, Mayor David Roberts and the City Council are on board “to provide alert warning and assistance to Hoboken.”

Fitzsimmons, like most of the municipal OEM coordinators, works only part-time on emergency management, and receives a $10,000 stipend. Full-time, he is a police captain.

In November 2005, the Hoboken City Council discussed hiring a full time Deputy OEM coordinator, Joel Mestre, for a salary of up to $70,000. The matter was dropped rather than being introduced at the Nov. 14, 2005 City Council meeting.

But the Wednesday before last, it was approved by the council as part of a salary ordinance. This time, it was given a salary range of $50,000 to $85,000.

City Spokesman Bill Campbell said the appointment was always “in the works.”

“He’ll be the day-to-day guy for emergency management,” Campbell said. Mestre has actually been acting for some time as an unpaid deputy emergency management coordinator, and attended meetings of the citizens’ committee. He is also a volunteer firefighter in another town.

Currently, Mestre is the city’s full-time zoning officer, but will switch over. He will still work under Fitzsimmons.

Fitzsimmons cited a bigger problem his department is working on – they need a stable emergency operations center (EOC) to work in during a catastrophe.

“We [currently] generate out of two locations,” he said. “We set up here [the Police Station] and at City Hall, like on September 11.” He said the EOC needs basic things to run efficiently: trunk lines, a radio generator, equipment, chairs, tables, basic tools, and utilities. Fitzsimmons said the hopes the EOC will move permanently to the first floor of City Hall soon. “Money sounds like an endless amount of available funds, and it’s not,” he said.

Hurricane evacuation plans

Oddly, even if Hoboken is moving slowly to release public information on what to do during terrorist threats, the city said it will soon release information about a more imminent threat – hurricanes.

Nearing the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the city formed a Hurricane Task Force last month to prepare the community.

Officials say that Hoboken could be two stories under water if the area suffered a rare direct hit.

The first meeting of the task force was held in July, with Roberts, Police Chief Carmen LaBruno, Fire Chief John Cassesa, and Fitzsimmons.

According to Fitzsimmons, information on hurricane preparedness will be distributed shortly to the community. “Another important task in preparing for the eventuality of an emergency is our liaison with PSE&G, Verizon, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and all the surrounding communities,” said Fitzsimmons. In the event of a hurricane watch or warning, police advise that residents should stay tuned to local media for instructions. Stations may engage the Emergency Alert System and suspend regular programming. If the city needs to be evacuated, the media and the city’s Web site will advise residents of the best routes.

The city plans to send representatives to the city’s senior buildings, and will establish staging areas around the city to help evacuate those without the ability or means to do so themselves, Roberts said. The city has three public senior citizen buildings on the west side of town.

Recently, the county OEM has been utilizing “slosh modeling” – maps that can tell what would be submerged in water during different categories of hurricanes. According to Burns, four hospitals in Hudson County would be underwater during a severe hurricane.

The state Office of Emergency Management website,, claims to contain “coastal evacuation maps,” but when one clicks on the information, the maps only show various local highways that could be used.

You can volunteer

Larson and Garetano noted that most (but not all) Hudson County towns are presently training local volunteers to join CERTs, or individual Community Emergency Response Teams.

In addition, the HRHC is seeking all sorts of volunteers for a countywide Medical Reserve Corps, which currently has 100 volunteers who are not medical professionals.

Hoboken or Bayonne do not yet have CERTs.

Both towns say they are working on it.

“We want to train people who will be here when an emergency happens and be able to organize as a group quickly,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s all volunteers. There is no compensation, just a good Samaritan effort.” CERT training is a 20-hour course taught over eight 2.5-hour classes. Volunteers are trained in the basics of firefighting, search and rescue, first aid, disaster psychology, evacuation leverage, public service, disaster preparedness, and team organization.

The only municipalities with existing CERT teams are Guttenberg, Weehawken, Union City, Jersey City, and the countywide team.

Garetano would like to see more people in the Medical Reserve Corps, and interested parties can call (201) 223-1133 and ask for Annie McNair.

Have your kit

When it comes down to it, Larson said, people should at least prepare kits to use in an emergency.

“People should have three days’ supply of water, canned goods, nonperishable food for their family and pets,” she said. “They should have a stash of things that you would need to survive on.”

A getaway bag is also something that residents should have prepared for an emergency.

“The Red Cross and other emergency management websites have lists of what to include in getaway kits,” she said. “You should have clothes, vitamins, medications, books, the essentials that you would need if you had to leave quickly.”

Larson says the public should remain vigilant.

“If people are ignorant,” Larson said, “they will be in trouble.”

Reporter staff writer Caren Lissner contributed to this story.


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