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Biggest storm ever seen

Adam Schneider

Adam Schneider is an Attorney at Law and the Mayor of Long Branch, NJ. Worried about the storm, Schneider urged people to evacuate and prepared the town as best he could. During and after the storm he worked closely with OEM, other government offices, and the utility companies. In his narrative, Adam talks about his efforts to help the people of Long Branch to recover from the storm. In particular, he speaks to a very public squabble he had with the power company in his efforts to have electricity restored.

 

How have you been involved with the response to Hurricane Sandy?

In a number of ways. I was involved in much of the planning that OEM [Office of Emergency Management] did, we had a series of storms prior to sandy so we’ve been sharpening our operation for years. Then I was out and about before during and after the storm.

How did you prepare people for the storm?

A couple of different ways. This was the first storm we actually evacuated people. We had shelters, rescue centers, we worked with the county because Monmouth University opened up their gym in order to house as many people as they could. We transported people there, we did various public notices. Sandy was a storm that we had almost weeks’ notice to get ready for. We actually sent people out to knock, we did everything. Some of the places that flooded weren’t directly on the water but we let everybody know we weren’t gonna physically remove you from the house. We were strongly suggesting that you leave. Then the night of the storm we pulled people from their houses. All of a sudden there were 4 or 5 feet of water and we had people out pulling them out and rescuing them.

Were you particularly worried about Sandy?

Oh yeah, very much so. Storms are very scary and I’ve been through several very severe ones.. I was very worried. This was bigger than anything we had seen before, to the extent that the morning that it hit, it was a Monday, I was up in the north of the city and it was low tide, and there was water all over the place already, it was worse than we had seen. There was a storm in 1992, a nor’easter in December 1992. That was always my benchmark. That was the worst I’ve ever seen. Low tide of Sandy was as bad as high tide was then, so we knew it was gonna be bad. There was a moment where I was afraid we were gonna have to help the hospital evacuate. Because they called as said, “Our generators are really being overtaxed, we’re getting concerned, we need help.” That was actually when JCP&L rose to the occasion, and the hospital was back on Friday night. That was, my code red message the next morning was they responded, the hospital’s back on, you know that’s reason for optimism we’re getting cooperation. 24 hours later I was like killing them. But that’s a scary thought. If we had to evacuate the hospital, I don’t even know how that’s possible. So you know there were moments but everything came through. 

What were your initial impressions of the devastation?

It was Tuesday morning. I did not go out and run which I do almost every morning. I just said, not a good idea because I didn’t know the conditions. I get picked up at my house, and was driven around, because at that point it was a State of Emergency. We started to survey what needed to be done. I saw a townhouse project in West End with the roof torn off, I saw power lines, they fortunately, were not live because we had no power in town. I don’t think we had power anywhere on Tuesday. Fortunately, Pier Village sustained very little damage. There was damage because there was wind. There was no structural damage. The boardwalk, parts of it were picked up and moved to the other side of the street. Parts of it looked good, but when we went down, we saw it was badly undermined and had to be completely removed. You got a sense of the volume of work…that was coming. I’ve been through bad storms before, this was significantly worse. The good thing was, I have a great OEM crew. They’re charged up, “okay we got a lot of work to do, and we’re going to be working day and night” and they’re excited by that, which is a good thing. It’s a great thing, because without them things don’t happen. I started doing reverse 911 calls every day, and I did them for about three weeks letting people know what was going on. I would spend a chunk of my day getting my department heads, you know, Department of Public Safety, OEM, the fire department, public works, like “okay, what are we doing today? What do people need to know today? Where can they go to get food? Where can they go to get ice? Where can they get water?” I would broadcast this every day and actually that was a big deal. For some people that was their only communication. So we knew what to do, and we were prepared, but it was a ton of work. The city had to function, OEM had to function around the clock. It was a 24/7 operation for a couple weeks.

Can you tell me a little bit about what was going through your head during the storm?

During the storm it was scary. You know, the weather reports were pretty accurate, we were being hit by the biggest storm most of us have ever seen. Power went out, at 9:00 on Monday night of the storm. I didn’t get it back for 11 days. We were lucky in one sense in Long Branch in that we have bluffs on the oceanfront those bluffs did their job. The surge hit. We got hit by a 30 foot wave and that wave filled the bay, the rivers, and the ocean all at once and people who have never seen water in their yard had 3 to 4 feet of water in their house. I did all sorts of different things, I drove around town and just checked up on people. “How are you? How’s your home? How’s the house? Where is everybody?” I went running just about every morning and I’d stop off and see people. It’s not that hard, but it calls for a lot of decisions and those were my decisions to make. In its own way, being on the front line like that is pretty exciting. There was a real sense of teamwork of “we’re gonna get through this” and that’s part of what my job was to convey to the public.

The summer of 2012, the water was unbelievably warm. It was warm much earlier in the season and warm ocean water is fuel for bad storms. We knew what to do. There was a sense of pride that we were taking care of our people and we got a lot of help. We had state troopers from as far south as Mississippi to as far north as Vermont patrolling Long Branch, they pitched in. We had these three guys with a truck, they buy gasoline, fill up a tanker, and drive it to places that have been hit by a storm and then they give the gas away. You know you’re almost in tears looking at people. So you saw what people were going through and it just, never saw anything like it. Hopefully I never do again.

In the days after Sandy what were the biggest challenges that you faced?

Lack of power and lack of cooperation from the utility company JCP&L. I was very outspoken publicly with them. They’ve gotten better, much better, but they were totally …incapable of communicating with officials as to the status of power in Long Branch and in other towns. I became one of the more outspoken mayors because I had just had it with them. We ended up in a very public squabble with then president of JCP&L. I just thought he was an asshole. And I don’t apologize for my language. That’s what I called him then, that’s what I’ll call him now. You have an obligation when you’re in public utility to be able to tell people what’s going on in a bad storm and they failed miserably. They’ve gotten much better and the president was replaced. That was the big fight.

What government agencies have you had contact with and how would you assess their performance?

Governor’s office, he was good. He never actually came to Long Branch but his office was pretty good. He had a staff member contact me early on. FEMA, frequent contact with them. They’re insurance adjustors. That’s their job and it can be a little frustrating but they have a job to do and they’ve done it. DEP, because replacement of the boardwalk needs to be approved by them. Board of Public Utilities a little bit because I wanted to review JCP&L’s emergency management plan, I was furious with them. I actually wrote a newspaper column that compared them to the Three Stooges, and I apologized for insulting the Three Stooges. You can only image two weeks of cold showers, no heat, living in the dark, and the guy who was in charge of telling you what’s going on and when you could expect power doesn’t know anything. It was just unacceptable and it got worse. I was very demanding and I wasn’t gonna back down. Saturday after the storm hit we get a phone call, JCP&L wants to meet with us. I got all the relevant department heads there, DPW, emergency management, myself, the business administrator and the guy from JCP&L and he’s not a bad guy but he took the brunt of it. It was basically “what’s going on?” “I don’t know.” “What do we have to do before power gets up and running?” “I don’t know.” “Well who does know? About a minute in my OEM director and I just lost it. JCP&L’s completely incompetent.

Saturday, I’m running and I see a guy I know. I’m talking to him, a JCP&L truck goes past. And I said, “See you later” and I go running after the truck. [laughing]. The guy sees me waving and yelling and he pulls over. And I introduced myself, and I’m like “okay what can I do to help you? I said “I have no information, the guys you work for are assholes,” and he laughed and I said “I’m not apologizing I said, but they don’t know anything, I don’t have any information to give. What are you doing that A: I can help you with and B: I can tell the public. And he was cutting down trees and I said to him “I have a list of every street and every power line with a tree. We’re not allowed to touch. We can help.” And he’s like, “you have a list?” I’m like yeah, your protocol says that’s part of our job and we’re to give it to you and we can’t touch them until you tell us the power’s clear. He goes “yeah that would be a help.” So I said to him “can I talk to your supervisor?” I figured I’ll start working my way up his chain of command. He goes “yeah” and I get the guy on the phone and I said “what can I do” and I said look, you gotta meet me at fire headquarters. I have 300 employees in the city. They’re all at your disposal if we’re working together. The guy shows up, he was a good guy, he understood what we were going through. None of the information we were sending over was being used. But we, at least we felt we were making progress. And we were. I remember asking him “okay what are the priorities?” We said sewer pumping, sewer treatment center has got to be priority number one. Senior high rises are number 2. Schools, residential areas, 3 and 4. We just started putting together a plan. 4 or 5 days later most of the town had their power back.

Did Sandy impact the morale of the community in any way?

Absolutely, but I think in a positive way. I don’t ever wanna do that again but in its own way, it was a very positive experience. Everybody really pulled together. You know the crew I work with who was paid firemen, volunteer firemen, police, EPW, OEM, paid staff, other people, just everybody functioned. We’ve gotten really good at helping you before, during and after the storm but we’re not experts in recovery. That’s the hardest job as it turns out, by far. But we have to figure out what we can do to help you get along, but that will always be a work in progress. We didn’t have looting, we didn’t have break-ins, we didn’t have didn’t have a whole lot of you know complaining. People understood this was huge. This was not an individual problem, this was a whole community and a whole state, tristate, and people really worked together and that part was really, really gratifying.

What do you think some lessons are from Sandy?

The storm preparedness, and emergency management is the most important thing local government does these days…because people can die in storms. I think you have a lot of storms that are near misses. That doesn’t mean the weathermen didn’t do their job right it just means we got lucky. I think people pay more attention now. Don’t go out and play in the storm, it’s not a game. Don’t go down and look at the ocean in a hurricane. I think people understand the nature of storms is much worse and getting worse. The towns know they need to be prepared. If we weren’t as prepared as we were people would have died that night.

The [JCP&L] president left, the new guy came in, came and met with me right away made sure I got what I was asking for. They now communicate with us. Much, much better. They have refused for years to come and actually work with us and develop a cohesive plan, which is what you need, a plan for these things. And we’ve learned how to do it the hard way. You live through the storm, you didn’t do as good of a job as you should have. And the public will let you know. By the time Sandy hit, we had a code red. We have the ability to communicate with every house in Long Branch. People stayed calm. People listened.


Interviewed by Stephanie Pappas
Assisted by Megan Moast
Edited by Stephanie Pappas
Long Branch, New Jersey
Recorded April 16, 2015