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Irene Was Fought With Better Planning, Communication

Hillsborough used lessons it learned from Hurricane Floyd to help during last year's storm.

When the normally placid Millstone River becomes a monster and slams into the raging Raritan River in the Lost Valley section of Manville, Hillsborough officials know that an entire section of the township will likely be under water.

That’s what they anticipated last August when weather reports indicated Hurricane Irene, a 500-mile wide behemoth was going to strike furiously at New Jersey.

In response, township officials jumped into action three days before the hurricane hit the region, posting evacuation notices, preparing the emergency shelter and planning, planning, planning.

John Sheridan, the township’s emergency management coordinator said his office met Thursday before the storm struck with the township police department, Department of Public Works, fire departments, rescue squad, Citizen Emergency Response Team members, and the health and social service department.

The OEM command station and emergency shelter opened at 6 a.m. Saturday as the storm was bearing down.

By the time the Millstone and Raritan collided in Manville during the Aug. 27 storm–the Raritan peaking at 41 feet and the Millstone at 21 feet–both rivers were swollen by their tributaries, which drain hundreds of square miles of Central Jersey. This scene was repeated in the southwestern part the township where the Neshanic and South Branch of the Raritan Rivers converge.

“We become an island,” said Deputy Mayor Gloria McCauley, who was serving as mayor last August.

To warn residents of the potential dangers, McCauley said township employees and volunteers went door-to-door on the Thursday before Irene hit the area posting evacuation notices and other information that could help saves their lives, she said.

The evacuations also mean that there are fewer instances during the storm when emergency personnel were needed to rescue people, which meant a less dangerous event for them as well, Sheridan said.

The floods left a couple dozen township streets under water for a time, a couple of families staying temporarily at the emergency shelter and many homeowners and business owners facing soggy damage.

The township issued 45 notices after the storm to property owners whose homes had been waterlogged for a couple of days. McCauley said the notices informed the residents that the home would need an inspection by a township official before being re-occupied because of potential damage to electric systems, boilers, heating systems and other home equipment, and for structural damage.

The officials had experienced similar flooding during 1999's Hurricane Floyd, and said John Sheridan, the township’s emergency management coordinator, lessons learned during that storm informed planning for Irene.

The use of hand-delivered evacuation notices was one such lesson.

An important change since Floyd was technical, he said–the development of better communications systems, such as the township’s Nixel system, which sends alerts to residents’ smart phones, if residents have signed up, the township website, and broadcasts over radio station 1610.

Residents were better informed about the changing conditions, Sheridan said.

Better planning also led to closer coordination between township departments, he said. That led to quicker response times to arising situations, he said.

“There were times we responded to a call about a flooded road within 10 minutes,” he said. 

Sometimes, he said, because of the changing nature of the flood, when personnel showed up, the road was open.

Another lesson learned from Floyd, Sheridan said, was that “we were on our own.”

In Irene, as in the previous storm, Somerset County response efforts were focused on the hardest hit areas, Bound Brook and Manville, he said.

Lines of communication were open, he said, and were needed in a couple of instances when persons needed to be taken by boat across the Raritan River so they could get to Somerset Medical Center in Somerville.

“We learn something every time this happens,” Sheridan said.

McCauley said the township also benefited from the state’s communications efforts, led by Gov. Chris Christie. The robo-calls from the state kept the local official appraised of overall conditions, she said.

Going forward, Sheridan said, will be meetings to discuss how to handle the extensive power outages that occurred. The township will take part in area discussions with both electric utilities that serve the township to examine communications and coordinated responses.

The township incurred about $150,000 in storm-related costs, mostly overtime for personnel and disposal costs for hauling away residents’ damaged goods. McCauley said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the township for 75 to 80 percent of that cost.

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