The eyes on the storm

An inside look at how the city handled Hurricane Irene

It was 11 p.m. on Saturday night, and the rain from Hurricane Irene was already flooding parts of Hoboken. After a meeting at City Hall with Mayor Dawn Zimmer, workers from all departments took to the streets and carefully drove their vehicles through the storm to different destinations.
Zimmer had been encouraging residents to leave for four days, issuing a voluntary evacuation order on Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning at 11 a.m., she made the evacuation mandatory for residents living in ground-level apartments. The storm was predicted to make a second landfall in New Jersey later that day.
The first stop for city workers in their vehicles on Saturday night: the city’s shelter at the Wallace School at Eleventh Street.
“We fear the worst case scenario is happening,” Zimmer said to a volunteer at the shelter after hearing that the usual spots of Hoboken were beginning to flood already.
Zimmer made the decision to bring the approximately 60 evacuees to the Izod Center in East Rutherford, where a larger shelter was managed by the state.
Instead of making a large announcement, Zimmer told staff members and volunteers to go person to person, so as to not create panic.
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) — a group of volunteers trained after Sept. 11 – along with the Hoboken Police Department and other city workers and volunteers talked to people at the shelter.

Hoboken was able to avoid the catastrophic blow that officials feared Irene would bring.
Stevens Institute of Technology students Nicole Lim, Caitlin Early, and Eric Nolo had helped by checking guests into the shelter at the Wallace School earlier in the day. The students had plans for a community service trip to paint churches in the area, but the plans changed when Hurricane Irene approached.
At the shelter, many of the evacuees needed help carrying baggage to waiting NJ Transit buses. City employees like Communications Director Juan Melli, Confidential Aide to the Mayor Dan Bryan, and Deputy Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Joel Mestre helped.
Peggy Dyer, a Hoboken Parking Utility employee and CERT member, made sure two senior citizens who used a cane to walk – a brother and sister who didn’t understand English – stayed together through the entire evacuation process.
The pair clung to the arms of city workers, slowly making their way through the downpour to a waiting Transit bus.

To East Rutherford

A cheerful woman in her 30s offered Pringles to fellow bus riders as the cavalry made its way up Park Avenue, past the Lincoln Tunnel, and out of Hoboken. Rain bounced off the bus windows.
One male evacuee on the bus expressed concerns about the possibility of the Hudson River overflowing. Officials feared on Saturday that water would flood the city from both sides, with the usual floodwater piling up in the low-lying west side, and the rest coming from the Hudson River on the east.
Hoboken was the first municipality to arrive at the Izod Center. A state police K-9 unit checked the outside of the bus for bombs and drugs.
“I don’t like big dogs like that,” said the woman who had offered the Pringles, seeming nervous.
Zimmer helped one woman off the bus, holding a crate with a cat named “Halloween.” Shelter guests were allowed to bring animals, but they had to be crated.
State police, Air Force, and National Guard officials helped register guests after they were checked with a metal detector wand.
Dyer told officials at the Izod Center that the elderly brother and sister needed to stay together.

Back in Hoboken

Meanwhile, in the Hoboken Housing Authority projects – the 21 low-income buildings in the southwest portion of the city – the attempted evacuation did not go as planned. That area frequently floods.
As the mayor was on her way back to Hoboken from the Izod Center, the word from the HHA came in over the phone that residents were refusing to evacuate, even with police encouraging them to leave.
Zimmer discussed options with Mestre about how to convince people from the HHA to leave, but they ultimately decided that at 12:30 a.m., with the flooding already beginning, it was probably too late to try to evacuate. Since then, local politicians have been debating what went wrong and how to prepare in the future if a worse storm hits; see below for more.
After Zimmer and staff returned to Hoboken, they stopped back at the Wallace School shelter. City workers helped carry in the food that was donated by nearby restaurants to store it in refrigerators. But on the lowest floor in the Wallace School, water began to seep through the floor, bubbling through metal plates in the ground.
Once word spread that Zimmer had evacuated the shelter, Melli’s phone began to ring with television news outlets hoping to fill their 24-hour news cycle with constant coverage of the hurricane.
The mayor answered questions, then rode around the city in an SUV with Mestre, and a back seat crammed with city workers.
Mestre showed the mayor around many of the flooded areas of the city, pointing out hoards of cars that people had parked on Hudson Street, an area of town considered to be high ground. However, in a category 2 or 3 storm, that area could flood as well. Residents had been encouraged to park on high levels of garages or out of town.
“We’re making waves, Joel,” the mayor said to Mestre with a hint of nervousness after the car rode near the downtown train station’s flooded area.
The mayor and her staff returned to City Hall, where workers operated a 24-hour command center in the basement for residents to call with concerns. The command center remained open through the storm until it finally closed at 10 a.m. on Monday.

Council members helping out

Many workers napped in the City Council chambers on green cots with American Red Cross blankets.
Uptown, at 1200 Washington St., Councilwoman Beth Mason kept her former campaign headquarters and office open to help residents in the northeastern portion of the city, which she represents.
“We delivered supplies and food all throughout the storm,” Mason said on Sunday morning.
Council members Ravinder Bhalla and David Mello helped out at City Hall and the Wallace School shelter earlier in the day.
Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino said on Monday she helped by keeping 6th Ward constituents updated through Twitter, which was “new to [her].”

Help from next door?

The mayor retired for the night next to her desk in a cot at approximately 2 a.m. But three men approached the front glass doors of City Hall in the middle of the storm.
Melli, who also slept at City Hall, went to tell the men to go to the side door, as the front door was locked.
“It’s mayors Roque and Turner,” Melli said.
Mayor Richard Turner of Weehawken and relatively new Mayor Dr. Felix Roque of West New York, along with a city director from West New York, had driven to Hoboken. Turner said they stopped by just to see if they could be of assistance to Zimmer and her staff. Both towns are also along the Hudson River, but largely on higher ground.
After they left, it was time to sleep for many of the city workers.

Public safety on guard

However, the entire Police Department and much of the Fire Department worked through the night. Police Chief Anthony Falco commended his officers on Sunday for their hard work.
Fire Chief Richard Blohm said that between Saturday morning and Sunday during the hurricane, the Fire Department had “over 240 responses.” In a normal two-day period, the department responds to 10 to 15 calls, Blohm said.
“There were a lot of unexplained odors, fire alarms activated, and electrically energized downed wires,” Blohm said.

The morning after

On Sunday morning, after Irene left Hoboken, Zimmer issued warnings to residents via the city website about the downed power lines. She even said people should not walk their dogs outside. One of the biggest dangers in a hurricane is people being electrocuted by wiring or electrified water outside.
But the warnings didn’t keep many people inside.
At approximately 10 a.m., residents who stayed in Hoboken emerged onto the streets to see the damage that Irene left behind.
“I expected the Hudson River water to come over the wall,” said resident Mark Bratman, who was surveying the damage on First Street. “We’re lucky it didn’t.”
Police officers rode around town in packs after a night of nearly no sleep, warning residents to stay out of the flooded areas.
“I love how people like to play in the sewage,” said one police officer sarcastically who drove near First Street, where the flood waters reached up to peoples’ shins. The city’s sewer system is “combined,” meaning sewage and rainwater are carried in the sewers together. When the water rises and floods, the sewage could also find its way to the city streets.
On Newark Street, the flood waters began on the west side of the city and spread as far east as Garden Street, sparing only Bloomfield, Washington, Hudson, and River streets in the downtown area. Water even overflowed from the Hudson River, but only near the downtown train terminal.

Back to the HHA

But the city had other problems.
The residents of the Housing Authority had lost power, and were surrounded by water after not evacuating the night before. The National Guard, along with other city officials, used amphibious trucks to travel to the site to deliver food and ice.
Some areas surrounding the HHA were still flooded on Monday morning, more than 24 hours since the rains subsided.
The waters eventually receded, and power was restored late Sunday.
Carmelo Garcia, the executive director of the HHA, said last week that he did his part to alert residents about the dangers of the storm, alongside his emergency staff.
Garcia said he gave a list of residents with medical conditions to city officials, and said that four of the senior residents evacuated by bus when the city asked them to do so.
Garcia said that before the storm, he and his staff hung up flyers in the Housing Authority alerting residents of the evacuation announcements from City Hall. Garcia also said his department has a 25-step checklist before emergencies, which includes alerting residents, tying down garbage cans, stocking up on flashlights and batteries for residents, and making sure the windows are secured.
“My recommendation for the mayor on Saturday was that OEM [members] go with a uniformed police officer to the seniors and the disabled persons so that the presence they felt was that there was a really dire emergency,” Garcia said. “An attempt was made [to get them to evacuate], but the seniors were stubborn.”
“I can’t force anyone to evacuate,” Garcia added. “But I can give the residents the options based on what the city recommends.”
Zimmer said city officials touched base with those on the list that Garcia provided so the city could offer the people a ride to the shelter and inform them of the upcoming situation.
The city sent buses to locations throughout the city, including near the Housing Authority, every two hours on Saturday before the storm hit to move people to the shelter.
Zimmer said the HHA has no ground floor units, so those were not required to evacuate. Zimmer said that regarding disabled or elderly people on ground floor units in other parts of town, CERT workers knocked on doors in the biggest flood prone areas to make sure people knew of the evacuation order.
Zimmer said she was concerned that if people requiring electricity for medical devices lost power, their trouble could worsen.
She said she was able to convince one family to leave Columbian Towers (a senior building that is not part of the Housing Authority) to go to a shelter because a woman in the family required a medical device powered by electricity.
“Thankfully she did go to a shelter because the power went out at Columbian Towers,” Zimmer said. “And they had Cuban sandwiches for dinner and pancakes and sausage for breakfast.”
Garcia estimated approximately $125,000 in damages to the HHA. Garcia said he began preparing for the storm on Thursday with his emergency team, and continued working until past Sunday, when he and Joseph Branco, the owner of Scotland Yard and Room 84, handed out ice and supplies to residents.
Zimmer said that in the future, she would like to expand the CERT team to help spread the message of evacuations around town. Other measures would include putting items like glow sticks in hallways at the HHA in case power is lost.
Before the storm, Zimmer said CERT team members and volunteers from Stevens went door to door in the flood prone areas, informing residents of the evacuation alerts. Police and fire officials also drove around the city with microphones, she said. As part of the preparation, Zimmer encouraged residents with special conditions to call the city if they needed help evacuating. She said the city now has a larger database of people to check up on if another hurricane hits Hoboken.

Cleanup efforts

The cleanup continued on Monday, when Zimmer wrote on her Twitter account that volunteers were being asked to help fix up the city’s parks.
Health and Human Services Director Leo Pellegrini, after a weekend at City Hall, helped coordinate a volunteer effort to clean up downed branches through the city’s parks.
One such volunteer was John Carlos, a Bloomfield Street resident who evacuated after the mayor issued the mandatory evacuation for ground-level units.
“I evacuated once I heard the order for ground level apartments,” Carlos said. He added that he heard about the volunteer opportunity through Twitter. Carlos returned to Hoboken on Sunday, after the storm had passed.
Pellegrini said on Monday that most of the damage had been limited to downed trees and some flooding that hadn’t yet receded.
Looking back, many agree that Hoboken was lucky to avoid the catastrophic blow that officials feared Irene would bring.
On Tuesday, Zimmer announced the hiring of two new directors, and on Wednesday, she called for a special council meeting on Saturday, which would likely bring all the political parties back together to spar. Just a few days later, it was back to business in Hoboken.
Ray Smith may be reached at

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