VENTNOR – There are always too few people in attendance at these meetings. The main message to the two dozen interested citizens who attended the Downbeach communities’ annual Hurricane Preparedness meeting held at St. James Hall Wednesday, Aug. 28 was, when the call comes to evacuate, just do it.
“We always tell people, if you decide to stay, put your name and other personal information on a piece of paper in your shoe, so if we find you, we can notify your next of kin,” Ventnor Emergency Management Coordinator Donna Peterson said. She was not joking.
All three Downbeach municipalities participated in the information session, during which every representative of local and regional emergency management teams said the same thing – when it’s time, evacuate. Do not stay behind. Because if you do, and sustained winds are above 47-miles-per-hour, emergency responders will not be able to come and help you, and if there’s flooding, expensive emergency vehicles will be brought to higher ground.
“If given an evacuation notice, take it to heart,” Ventnor Firefighter Joe Iannuzelli said. “If there’s 4 feet of water and high winds, we can’t come out and get you. In fact, we may have to evacuate as well.”
If the water doesn’t get you, the lack of utilities will, they said, so be prepared.
“Sandy is our new benchmark. I was not prepared either. You are only as prepared as your training,” Ventnor Police Chief Doug Biagi said. “Houses can be rebuilt, what cannot be replaced is your life, your family, your pets.”
Newly appointed Margate Emergency Management Coordinator Chuck LaBarre explained how to create a “Go Bag” containing everything you need to survive for a week on your own, which could be with family, in a hotel or at an off-shore shelter, which everyone agreed is not a pleasant place to be after a hurricane, especially if you have pets.
“A Go Bag can be pre-packed and ready to go for any emergency,” LaBarre said.
A go bag should contain prescriptions, non-perishable foods, water, flashlight, batteries, cell phone charger, crank radio, first aid kit, lightweight jacket with a hood, garbage bags, Sham-Wows, and a Ziplock bag filled with important documents. Documents should include a will, advanced directives, insurance policies, prescriptions with dosages, bank account records, emergency phone numbers, contact information for relatives, etc. He recommended taking photos of all the documents on your cell phone to have as a backup. Scanning documents ahead of time and putting them on a jump drive is also recommended.
Atlantic County Deputy Coordinator Jake Lees said only the county OEM or the governor can call for a mandatory evacuation. The county OEM exists to support local emergency management officers with everything they need to ensure the evacuation is carried out effectively.
He advised residents with infirmities or special needs, such as oxygen or other electrical medical support systems, to register on the county’s Register Ready secure website. In an emergency, the county will notify local OEM offices to provide special assistance, which could include picking you up in a van with a wheelchair lift.
The county OEM also maps out the area’s evacuation routes. One resident noted that the major intersection of Rt. 40 and West End Avenue floods even during high tides, such as this week’s King Tide, the highest tide of the year.
“Evacuation routes are affected by tidal flooding,” Lees said, “but we don’t evacuate during a storm. We evacuate in the days before, that’s why when you get a notice to evacuate, you should go right away. Don’t wait until the last minute,” he said.
Lees said the decision to evacuate does not come easily for county officials, but it is mandatory.
There are no evacuation shelters on Absecon Island because they would be in danger of flooding as well, he said. However, the county has 24 shelters in offshore communities, mostly in schools, of which 21 are pet friendly.
“Don’t stay behind because of your pets,” he said. “We have a place for them.”
Pet owners should also prepare a go bag for Fido or Puff, said veterinarian Jessica Grant, who is a member of the Atlantic County Animal Response Team.
The most important thing is to make sure your pet is up to date on all their vaccinations, especially the rabies vaccine. Without proof of vaccination, they will not be able to go to a pet shelter, she said. Also have all important documents, medications, food, water, just like a personal go bag. Include a photo of you and your pet to ensure their return should you become separated.
She recommended printing out a list of pet friendly hotels to include in the pet go bag. Although there is room for pets at offshore shelters, they will be held in cages in a separate room, which can be very stressful for the animals.
Pointing to a green cot that’s not very comfortable, Peterson said, “You don’t want to have to sleep on that two feet from a stranger.”
It’s best to make arrangements to stay in a hotel or with a family member, she said.
Andrew Sykes, emergency management manager for Atlantic City Electric, recommended turning off the main breaker on the electrical panel before leaving your home to prevent power surges when service is restored.
“If electric goes out, it could be three to seven days before we can get to you,” he said.
He also said that in New Jersey, electrical outages must be reported by residential customers.
“We rely on our customers to let us know where the outages are, so call us and do not assume someone else has called,” he said. “We can let you know when you can expect service to be returned.”
The electric company’s outage priority list would address potentially life-threatening downed wires first, then transmission lines, substations, main distribution lines, and secondary lines, in that order. Service lines to individual homes and businesses would be served last, he said.
Most importantly, “stay away from downed wires.” Even if they are not sparking, they are live and could kill you, he said.
Rich DeRose of South Jersey Gas advised residents to refrain from turning off gas service to the house or trying to light the pilots in gas appliances after a flood.
“Only certified personnel can do that,” he said. “If you smell gas when you get back home, leave the house immediately and call us or call 9-1-1. Do not use your cell phone in the house, because the battery could cause a spark.”
He recommended calling 811 for a mark out of utilities before allowing a contractor to remove downed trees.
Longport Emergency Management Coordinator Bruce Funk encouraged residents to become members of the Citizens Emergency Response Team. Volunteers receive lifesaving training to build survival, basic and advanced first aid, and search and rescue skills.
The 20-hour CERT course is offered at the county level in eight sessions, including emergency preparedness, fire prevention, disaster medical operations, emergency medical services for self and the injured, triage, disaster psychology and terrorism. A final exercise includes a live drill.
After training, volunteers can find themselves staffing an emergency operations center, searching for a lost child, or assisting the American Red Cross.
“We have five volunteers in Longport who help us go door-to-door to check on residents. They really enjoyed the classes,” he said.
Peterson recommended property owners go to their municipality’s website to sign up for the CodeRED notification system to receive weather advisories, evacuation warnings, road closures and other important information.