Kassandra Putman was working for Seaside Heights Police Department as an emergency dispatcher while Hurricane Sandy took her toll on the Jersey Shore. Stranded on the island for 72 hours post-hurricane, Putman recalls her biggest challenge being finding food and water. More than two years after the storm she reminds the public of the importance of listening to your local police.
How were you involved in the emergency response to Hurricane Sandy?
I was the police dispatcher [for] The Seaside Heights Police Department. I was taking the phone calls. I was relaying all of the information to the first responders.
I was actually there when the storm hit. I went in the day before it hit. I was there for the night that it happened and then I was actually stuck on the island for 3 days after it happened. So I was taking all the phone calls from all the residents that needed rescuing, from the county that kept calling in everything, I was dealing with the chief, the police officers, the fire department, and everyone that needed help. And there was a lot of people that kept calling that needed rescuing.
It was very stressful. I didn’t think that it was going to be especially because I was new dispatching in general; I didn’t do it for more than 2 years when this happened and that was the first police department that I worked for.
I’ve always had calls that were serious, you know… first aid calls, people that would pass away, car accidents, fights on the boardwalk, um but never actually something devastating. It was scary, you know hearing the people call and literally screaming that the water was coming into their houses and that they didn’t have an upstairs to go to, that they had kids with them, they had their pets and they didn’t know what to do and they couldn’t get out. It was pretty much all the same stuff… people calling for help, rescues… people that lived closer to the boardwalk was scarier because the waves were literally crashing into their houses.
I had a young mom call. She pretty much just said that she didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it was because that was everyone’s view of the storm…No one thought it was gonna be you know, the outcome that it was. And she had her, I believe it was a two year old in the house as well as her animal and she was not okay. She was freaking out, she was so afraid. She said she woke up in the middle of the night…I would say it was about 2:00 in the morning and when she went to go step out from her bed she just like stepped into a huge pile of water. Um, she called us for help and we went and picked up her and her son and I believe it was a dog. So it was..it’s scary.
The county would call us and then at one point, our phones actually went down so they were calling our cell phones. They were just giving us the addresses of all the places or all the people who were calling that needed rescuing and then we relayed that information to the fire department and the police officers and they were responding to them.
For all of the people that I worked for having to gear up, get in the fire trucks, go out to each house… they literally had a list of houses that they had to go to, and try to put up ladders to get to the attics of houses to get people out of there. Everyone was brought back to the courthouse and they were placed up there And then at one point we actually had to evacuate our bottom floor of the police department, and go up to the court as well because water started coming into our building.
So, it was definitely an experience. I wasn’t expecting it to be as crazy as it was and to hear all the people screaming, crying, and having to worry about the police officers and their safety and you know the power was still on around and there was live wires in the water. It was definitely a [memorable] situation that I definitely won’t forget.
Did Hurricane Sandy impact you at all directly?
Uh, emotionally I would say. Having to talk to people that were in fear of their lives was definitely something that I’ve never dealt with before…and then the fact that I was afraid for my family. They were over in Toms River and Forked River and I was stuck on an island and I didn’t get out for like 72 hours. So, I was nervous for them, for me, I didn’t know when we were gonna be able to get off. Like they weren’t telling us much, you know because they didn’t even know… so we weren’t sure when we were leaving.
As a dispatcher, how did you prepare for the storm?
I didn’t actually. I was young, I was only 22. They said that they needed help. It was me and two other [dispatchers] and I literally didn’t bring anything except for the uniform that I was wearing. I didn’t think we were gonna be stuck there. I honestly downplayed the storm a little bit. I thought we would be able to leave when our shift was over. Um and then when it started to get bad, obviously there was no relief for us we had to stay. So we took turns you know sleeping. [I] definitely, I was not prepared at all.
It was actually horrible, we had no toothbrushes. Like I said we were there for like 72 hours. There was no running water, you could barely go to the bathroom. Like it was, I wasn’t prepared actually. Now if I had to be prepared I would have… like if this was a redo, I would’ve brought a change of clothes, bottles of water, you know…food. But I wasn’t prepared at all when we went there. I had no idea what I was about to face.
What were your initial impressions of the devastation and the condition of Seaside Heights? What was most shocking to you?
It was horrible. I walked out the next morning, I would say when it got light out…maybe 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and um, me and the other two dispatchers that I was with, we walked out back and it was, it literally looked like it was just came and swept away. There was, when we walked out to the main road that the police department was on, there was, if you looked down straight, there was a house in the middle of the road. I just couldn’t believe it; it was unreal what I saw. And we were looking around and literally there was just stuff everywhere from like inside houses, there was stuffed animals, bikes, couches, tables, houses…literally, pieces of houses all over the place.
Then when we walked up to the boardwalk, it was unbelievable. There was literally parts of it that was like lifted up and down and missing, like completely gone. The businesses, like you know how they close them with that metal? You know to keep everything out? Those were all pushed in, everything was all over the place. It was definitely a sight to see and it was horrifying. I actually cried as soon as I saw the boardwalk. It was not okay.
I would say the house in the middle of the road [shocked me the most]. The fact that there was literally houses just missing and then displaced. There was, it was on [Route] 35 South I think it was, there was literally a house just right in the middle of the roadway. And then when I went up to the boardwalk, um obviously I’ve lived here my whole life so we’ve gone every summer, me and my family. To see the boardwalk completely devastated, that was..that hurt a little bit.
In the days after the hurricane, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Figuring out food, water, what we were gonna do with all the people upstairs in the court. We had hundreds; there was a lot of people upstairs. Um there was animals. We didn’t know how we were getting off of the island because it was impossible. There was no showers, there was no running water, um we thankfully had a generator. I think after 24 hours… the fire department had some food, like cereal and like packaged food that they were feeding the people upstairs. But, that was probably the most stressful was figuring what we were gonna do about food. Really for us and everyone else.
We actually, after a while, we got our hopes up a few times thinking we were gonna leave and the next set of people were gonna come in. You know because after so long of doing this job it just drains you, it literally does. Um, so we needed to switch out dispatchers, we needed to switch out police officers… people needed to go home you know, shower, change, get some sleep!
We had a military tanker truck actually drive over the bridge and there was about I would say, 15 or 20 of us that were piled into the back of it. We all had to stand up and you know hold on to the side of the… it was literally like a box truck, there was nothing back there and uh it took a while because those vehicles can’t drive fast. They trucked us back over the bridge.
We got dropped off at AAA on [Route] 37 and some of our cars were there. My vehicle was parked at the post office in Island Heights. We knew that it wasn’t okay obviously to have our cars at work. So a bunch of us parked [in Island Heights], some people parked them at the AAA. Um, just to keep them you know out of harms way, the ocean’s way, or the bay…whichever one. Um there was a police officer I worked with who didn’t move his car, he left it at his house in Ortley [Beach] and it was completely done for. So we just didn’t want our cars gone also because we didn’t know what else was gonna happen.
So we pretty much got rides back to our cars and then I stayed with my grandfather for like the next week because I couldn’t get back to my house in Forked River.
What was it like returning to work after Hurricane Sandy, after being able to get off of the island and regroup?
It was sad only because there obviously weren’t any calls. There was nobody living on the island, it was pretty much deserted.
We got rides through the towns by the police officers and Ortley [Beach] was probably the worst, when we drove through there.
So it wasn’t normal…. It wasn’t like I went to work, sat down at my computer console, answered 9-1-1 phone calls and dispatched police to them. It was people constantly in and out of the police department, like cops from all over the place that were literally coming in bringing us food, blankets, clothes. Um, it it was not normal. It just wasn’t normal. It was not like a regular workday and it was like that for a while. People were just you know, trying to repair the island and nobody was living there. The boardwalk was still horrible; there were cars everywhere, enormous potholes with vehicles in them. So it was just trying to clean up the town, it was not like anything I have ever seen. It wasn’t a normal workday for a while… months.
How do you feel about Seaside’s response to Hurricane Sandy?
I think they did a very, very good job. Both chiefs – the fire chief and the police chief – they were out there, they were in cars, they were rescuing people. Um, could I say that anybody was prepared for what actually happened? No, but the way they handled it was very well you know they brought everybody up into our court, they gave them shelter, blankets. We had little cots that everybody was laying on to sleep. They opened the fire department like we opened the police department and we’re not a shelter but we did it, because we had to… and there was a lot of people up there. There was dogs, cats, kids, old people, young people.
…They did what they were supposed to do. How they were trained to do it. They did a very, very good job. Some of our police cars obviously, you know got water damage, so now those would come off the island. Other than that the firetrucks, everything, they did what they were supposed to do and they got the people out of their homes. You know? And to safety like they should have.
So I would say I am very proud of the way that they handled it especially because they were risking their own lives going out into the storm and saving people who didn’t evacuate like they were told to. So, instead of them being inside safe, they were out risking their lives saving people, which is what the field is all about, but it is also very scary. So I definitely was proud of them.
Do you think that experiencing Hurricane Irene the year before Hurricane Sandy impacted the way you prepared for the storm? Or the way other people in general prepared?
Yeah, not me per se.
I know someone personally that prepared for [Hurricane] Irene and nothing happened…. Like extremely was like let’s do this, lets evacuate, lets move all of our stuff off of the first floor, and then nothing major happened.
So then, when we were warning everyone about Sandy, the fire department literally went around for days like blasting their horns telling everybody ‘get out, get out, get your stuff! Leave! Don’t stay here, it’s not safe’. That’s why we had so many people that we had to rescue because people didn’t believe that it was going to be as bad as it was. Like I said I didn’t even think that it was going to be that devastating. So they were like ‘Oh I’ll be fine you know its not going to be that bad. I’m just going to stay here. Whatever.’ And it was. I feel like it would’ve put a lot less lives in jeopardy if everybody would’ve left like they were told. But since Irene happened the year before and nothing happened, that’s why they didn’t. They downplayed it.
Seaside was [mandatorily evacuated] and people just weren’t listening. They were not leaving. They didn’t care, not to say they didn’t care…I mean of course people cared about that. They didn’t think it was going to be as bad as it did, so they just weren’t leaving.
What do you think is the most important part in knowing your story?
I guess just the importance of storms and listening to your local police and first aid when they do tell you that you need to evacuate…when they do tell you something serious is about to happen and not take it lightly. Take it for what it is, listen to them. Don’t think that you are invincible, don’t think that the storm is not gonna be as bad as it is because you never know.
No one knew that Sandy was going to be this bad. Um, we had an idea but never thought that it was literally going to rip towns apart. So it definitely put a lot of lives in jeopardy, first responders, the people who live there… you know kids, animals, elderly. Just seek shelter you know? Don’t stay home. Don’t think that its not gonna be as bad as it is because people literally lost everything. And it’s really important you know, thankfully we didn’t lose anyone, everybody was okay. The civilians as well as the first responders were fine but you know next time it may not be that way. So I think it is very important for people to actually listen when the trained professional are telling you to leave. You need to leave. Instead of stay around and hang out to see what’s gonna actually happen and then it be too late to leave.
Really that’s the number one lesson because, really. There’s nothing else other than to take your cars away too. People’s cars were gone because they didn’t you know move them off of the island. Which is what they told us before they came into work was to you know leave them on the main land before we came over. Um no, I would say that’s the biggest [lesson to be learned].
Interviewed by Caileen Fitzpatrick
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Edited by Caileen Fitzpatrick
Seaside Heights, March 20, 2015