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Never had a storm like this

Kenneth Ferrante

Kenneth Ferrante has served the city of Hoboken for twenty-two years, first as a patrol officer and now as the Chief of Police. During Hurricane Sandy, Ferrante was the Commander of the south portion of Hoboken and was in charge of forty officers. In his narrative, he discusses his experiences in responding to those in need during the storm. He also discusses the progress the city had made in the aftermath, the community’s strengthened resilience, and the department’s continuing work to protect and serve.

 

What do you like most about living and serving in Hoboken?

Love the city. It’s a city atmosphere, you know, it’s gone through a lot of transformations over my 40 years. It’s an exciting town, there’s a lot here, you can walk out your door and walk one block and have so many different things that make life exciting. It’s the city I was born and raised in.

My father was a police officer, he retired in 2005 as a police captain, so I always saw what law enforcement life was like, and always took pride in my community. I wanted to serve it and protect it. I know many people in town, even through the transformations of different demographics. I’ve enjoyed the transformation, enjoyed serving the city since I was 20 years old and always took pride and care 24 hours a day in my law enforcement career.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy, how did you prepare?

Saw the storm tracks coming. I’m a weather buff also, I always love following weather, and took some meteorology courses in college, and watching this track come to our area, it looked like it could be, potentially, much larger than what we saw with [Hurricane] Irene. James Marnell, who is a Lieutenant now, he came on the job with me in ’93, he always said, “look at the shape of New Jersey and Long Island, how it’s that ‘L’,” where if we ever get hit with a hurricane full force, there’s going to be a lot of areas flooded, especially Hoboken.

When we were about 72 hours out, the Friday before Sandy came, I got a call from Captain Pasculli, who was the Operations Planner for the event. We started discussing what we were going to do, as far as deployment, started looking at buildings over the weekend, buildings that had scaffolding attached to it. Asking those construction companies to please bring down the scaffolds and any ladders, knowing we could potentially have some high winds. Looking at the tides and the moon settings, we knew we were going to have a very high, rising river. We were going to begin operations on that Monday at 8am. The full department was deployed, we laid out a 4 hour [on]/4 off schedule, and officers were told they would work 24 hours over until the brunt of the storm is over. On that morning, of Monday, the 29th, [we] went out and, I was in Group 2, which would put us out at noontime, which was going to be my group’s first deployment. At 8 o’clock, myself, Lieutenant Marnell, Captain Charles Campbell, we took a walk along the waterfront, and we already saw the river, which [was not] even near high tide, coming over our piers, just at the foot of the piers, and I was saying “this is going to be pretty bad.” As the winds, the storm surge and the rains came throughout the day, it just progressively got worse. The whole preparation was trying to make sure families were in a safe position, [and] had everything they needed as far as lighting, batteries, water. But, we did not; we weren’t ready to prepare for that type of incident. We were greatly under-prepared.

Tell me about your experiences as the hurricane was taking place.

On my 8pm to midnight shift, on the 29th is when the brunt hit, and Officer Robert Truppner, who was my driver in my command vehicle, and we were equipped. We felt we had everything in our truck that we needed to make any rescues: communications, back-up batteries, radios, flashlights, power bars, [and] drinks. It was the third shift of the day for us, and, I remember vividly, the storm was getting pretty strong, about 9pm, and we were sitting there, maybe 200 feet north of Observer Highway. Observer Highway is our southernmost road, that runs east-west, and we had already seen Erie-Lackawanna terminal, which was to our east, had filled up with a couple of feet of water, and there was some water that had come from the river, floating down Observer Highway. Shortly after 9, looking south, we see water, coming over because there’s an inlet between Hoboken and Jersey City, which had filled up. We saw it come over and crash into the water that was already flowing from the river. It suddenly started looking like roaring rapids, going west on Observer Highway, towards the southwest of Hoboken, and it was as if you were whitewater rafting. That strong surge on Observer Highway, as the water from the transit terminal and the water from the river met.

That activity maintained for hours and southwest Hoboken just filled up. We had about 80% of our city flooded, and I would say 40% of it, that southwest quadrant, was in four to six feet of water for almost a week. We lost power during the middle of the night, and Hoboken had no power whatsoever for seven days. We were only able to operate with the vehicles that we had on Washington Street, three blocks west of the river and Hudson Street, two blocks west of the river; neither flooded. As you go to Bloomfield [there] was one foot, two feet. When you got down to Jefferson Street, Madison Street, Jackson Street, you were in four to six feet of water. All I was thinking about is, there’s going to be a lot of people that are going to drown in this.   It’s still a miracle to me that no one in this city died from the floodwaters – I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know how it happened.

You were with other police officers?

We were in teams of two to four, as commander I just had a driver, we wanted officers in three to four to be able to make rescues, for 24 hours we really couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t go into the southwest of Hoboken. We didn’t have the equipment, we didn’t have the boats, [and] we didn’t have high water vehicles. We’d never had a storm like this. For 24 hours, I was just saying, “what do we have in this section of town?” When Tuesday arrived, that’s when the Mayor Zimmer began making pleas on CNN and national networks that we need the National Guard here, we don’t know what we have, we need to go in and rescue people. They did not arrive until Wednesday, which greatly helped us. On Tuesday night we got two payloaders, high construction vehicles, and I, along with Officers Markey, Olivera and Santiago, and then Captain Campbell and another three officers in another payloader, we went down into the southwest. Just with flashlights, just to make an assessment. We didn’t have any equipment to rescue them and take them out. We [started with] senior apartment buildings, and we made sure they had water [and] food.

It was fortunate that rescues were starting to be made in town Wednesday night/Thursday. People were forced to shelter in place for 48 – 72 hours before they were rescued. We were able to give an assessment, to the department and the city: this is what we’re dealing with right now, we didn’t see any bodies floating in the water, amazingly at that point. It was dark still and the whole city was a river.   The National Guard came in on Wednesday night, and really started helping us, and started making rescues, within 48 hours of the storm.   We had our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is a volunteer group that works on emergency management [and] Lou Casiano is the director of that; they’re a group of about 100, who are trained in all different types of rescues, notifications, [and] communications. They gathered, and put together 5000 volunteers that started bringing food to people, making food pods around different areas, where it wasn’t majorly flooded. Tried to go to every high-rise building, tried to go to every senior building, bring water, batteries, and flashlights.

One of the wildest things, we’re such a technology era, nothing’s really hands on anymore, with money, cash equipment, a lot of stuff is done through computers, we had no power, and I remember by Thursday or Friday, we had mobile ATM machines that were brought in, just so people could start getting money. There were some places on Washington Street, because Washington Street wasn’t flooded, which is our main avenue, they were able to open up. They weren’t getting deliveries, but they were at least able to sell what they had. Nobody had cash. No one could use credit or debit cards, with no power. When they brought the mobile ATM machines in, we had to put police security there, because we were afraid of people getting robbed.

We were greatly fearful of panic, people starting to turn on each other, and the opposite is what happened in our city. The humanitarian response, of how people helped each other, and how people survived together, was unplanned, unimaginable, and as I said, I still can’t believe to this day that we had no deaths in this city.

How have you gone about the process of rebuilding and recovery?

Everybody wanted to install generators after that. The biggest fear was being in darkness. About a year later, I became the city’s Office of Emergency Management Coordinator, and we did a program in Hoboken, which was Mayor Zimmer’s vision, called “Hoboken Ready.” The program taught people how to shelter in place, because we saw how high we had storm waters in the city for a week, and, we definitely didn’t know how to prepare until after Sandy. The education part was the most important thing. There was a three level approach that got us to where we are now.  First, we went to all different buildings, different sections of the city, teaching people how to either evacuate or shelter in place. We explained to them, this has to be done 48 hours in advance. The worst thing, you can do is be in a car, and get caught in the middle of the storm and floodwaters. Are you able to evacuate to an area that’s not going to be hit by any type of storm, whether it be hurricane, snowstorms, blizzards, heat waves, cold spells? We basically taught people how to deal with any type of natural disaster.

Everyone, in the state, wanted generators. Everybody is still waiting for them. Because of funding [and] bidding, because of FEMA regulations, the grants, paperwork, documentation, going through proper channels, we’re still waiting on them. We’re very, very close, within months of having them in place: police headquarters, City Hall, ambulance corps, the four fire stations, and our main shelter, which is Wallace School, on Willow Avenue.   That was definitely not the solve-all, because two and a half years later, we’re still waiting, as are most cities.

Another thing the Mayor is extremely passionate on is protecting the city in the future. What we’re seeing is that by the year 2100, this city could be half underwater because of the rising tides, the rising waters of the rivers, the oceans in this area. She had the city enter a contest that was run by the United Nations, they’re actually awarding the city, on this coming Tuesday night. We won a ‘Rebuild by Design’ competition, which is going to totally change the eastern front of Hoboken. How it’s laid out, to protect us from flooding, add wet weather pumps throughout the city, we’ve added one, we have a second one that’s just starting, building this spring. A major legal fight, [where some] residents do not want the construction in their neighborhood, the Mayor’s answer was, “we need to protect all of Hoboken.” She stood strong, and she still is until we get that pump in. Those pumps are going to help.   It’s a $230 million dollar project for the front of Hoboken, that’s going to help northern Jersey City’s waterfront, Weehawken southern waterfront, and Hoboken’s entire waterfront. Hopefully, after all the work is done, over a ten year period, [the pumps] will greatly help us for future storms, and also protect the city 100 years out from the rising waters.

What do you think of the response of the electrical companies?

Electric companies – PSE&G. Their substations, in the city, were in four to six feet of water. I remember when the waters receded. When PSE&G finally got in, on Friday and Saturday, I think the job they did was outstanding. They gave estimates that there could be parts of Hoboken that will not be powered up until Thanksgiving. They were saying a month in darkness. Almost the entire city was up in seven days.   I have outstanding respect and admiration for the job that PSE&G did.

Do you think Hurricane Sandy has brought the community closer?

It did, and I think, unfortunately, even like what we saw after 9/11, after a year or two, when people start getting back into their lives and they’re comfortable again, it’s forgotten a little bit. By a lot of people, not by all, but I think you had really close-knit, everybody trying to help each other for a good six months after Sandy, but as a percentage of people started getting comfortable, their house was repaired, their power was on, and their street was okay, they forget about it. Once people get comfortable again, human nature is, well, it doesn’t affect me too much.

What do you think are lessons for the future that should be learned from Sandy, and how would you prepare differently?

If there is any place to evacuate to, if you have family members or friends, if you have enough money to take yourself to a hotel, you should try to do that. If not, it’s having all the different things you need in place to be able to live for a week, without any power, without energy sources, or water supplies. You want to have the food, the battery power, the different items, enough clothing available, if it was in winter, any type of portable fans, battery operated, if it’s in summer. You’ve got to remember about your pets – we put that in our Hoboken Ready plan – don’t forget your pets, they’re part of the family you’re dealing with, they’re part of the disaster just as much as you are. There needs to be a family plan; you want to think ahead and say, with your family, if something happens, a disaster, something that comes sudden, what are we doing? What is the family plan? How do we get in touch with each other? Where are we going to meet? Having plans, and I think it has to be done on small levels.

We have over 50,000 people that live in a square mile – a hundred forty police officers, a hundred twenty fire fighters, a disaster like that is so, so difficult for 260 people to try to make sure every single person is safe. You know, we aim towards our seniors, special needs, the children, but those between 20 and 50 have to have a plan to be able to help others, help themselves, because we can’t tend to fifty thousand. Families need communication channels in place and if we have a disaster again, we’re first going to go to our seniors, to make sure what they need. Then we’re going to go to our large buildings where there are a lot of children, a lot of families, and see if they’re ok. Those will still be our first two steps. We have some more equipment than we did in the past, but a lot of it, again, comes to funding and grants, and there’s only so much that you can do with that.

Is there anything else you wanted to share, any stories?

Let me just look through, this was my after-action report. I’m going to let you see this. It’s a confidential document, so it wouldn’t go out to the public, but this is my personal post-action report, being the south commander, you can thumb through it, if there’s anything you want to ask me from that. I just got that from Captain Pasculli before you came in today, I probably haven’t looked at that since I first became OEM coordinator, so I probably haven’t looked at it in a year and a half or so. The first two pages are different categories, and then you’ll see a day-by-day account of what I did in my duties.

You said that Hertz gave you you rentals?

Yes, that’s another thing that we’ve changed. When we buy police vehicles now, probably 50% of the vehicles we purchase are SUVs, like we’re looking to purchase anywhere from four to eight this year, it’s going to be half SUVs, half sedans. Police cars in two, three feet of water were breaking down. We fortunately had a Hertz and an Enterprise Rental, companies that were not underwater, and we called them and we said, we need all the SUVs you have, the largest vehicles. I think we had four [to] six Expeditions, just on that we could drive through two feet of water. Being in a city like this, the common police car was always considered, before this event, that was always the Ford or the Chevrolet.  A lot of departments didn’t buy SUVS until we started getting more snow in the last ten years. This event makes you need SUVs, not sedans.

Interviewed by Joanna Felsenstein
Edited by Joanna Felsenstein
Hoboken, New Jersey
Recorded April 24, 2015