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We weren't going to do well

Louis Amoruso

Louis Amoruso is the Director of Public Works and the Assistant Business Administrator for Toms River Township, New Jersey. As a child, he spent his summers in Ortley Beach at his family’s beach house, and in 1976 they moved down full-time. Since 1989, he has lived across the bay in Toms River. Amaruso’s job placed him at the center of the action during Hurricane Sandy. In preparation for the storm, his crews worked to build up the sand dunes in Ortley Beach and other communities on the barrier islands. During the storm, he organized the rescues of nearly 500 people stranded in homes. In the days after, he helped to orchestrate the removal of debris from Ortley and other heavily affected areas. In his narrative, Amaruso speaks to his experiences, emphasizes the importance of dunes and storm water management, and praises how people came together in a time of need.

How long have you been on the shore?

My family built a house in Ortley Beach in 1954, when I still lived in Bergen County. Until I was fifteen, all my summers and childhood memories were down here. Were summer people. Then in ’76, we moved down full time, and I bought my own house when I got married in ’89. Now I live just a couple blocks away from here [Toms River East High School]. Both of my kids went to high school here.

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

We have a 150-man department and we are full service. We handle sanitation, recycling, leaf collection, roadwork, and we also maintain the beaches, the public parks, and and all the things that you’d associate with storm water management. Leading up to the storm, we checked on all the public property to find trees that may pose a problem during high winds. We looked for any loose limbs, any cracked limbs, any trees that looked like they were dead and at risk of falling and becoming a projectile during the storm. They were cut down and disposed of, same thing with anything near wires and anything close to causing a secondary problem. We made sure all of our storm water systems were clean and functioning properly. In the week prior to Sandy, we shored up the dune lines. We have got about a mile of beachfront on the barrier island. The North Beaches, the Silver Beaches, Ocean Beach, Chadwick, Normandy, places like that. There were restrictions by DEP in terms of how we could move sand on the beach. There’s a method, scarping, in which you take the top foot of sand at high water and move it to build the dunes up. We did that all along our coastline. After we did that, we shored up the existing dunes. We then closed off all of the beach entrances and covered them up to create, as much as possible, a solid dune line.

After that we went and ran a secondary dune line east of the main dune line as a sacrificial buffer in Ortley Beach. For example, in Ortley we’ve got a very, very narrow strip of beach and from the dunes to the waters edge in some areas is less than 50 feet. The beaches were designed way too close to the waters edge. Actually, when the area was developed a hundred years ago, they were the most susceptible to storm water surges. It’s a barrier island by nature; it’s really not designed to be habitable, but rather to be a barrier to protect the mainland. The dunes, by their design, are inadequate and there’s nothing we can do without expanding that beach and running it out into the ocean to create a gradual incline and a significant dune.

While you were building this barrier and dune, did you use any knowledge of past storms to determine how big the dune needed to be? Are there regulations for the size of the dunes?

That question is a yes, a no, and a maybe. Yeah, a lot of what we do is based on past practice and history. We look back at the most recent storm, Hurricane Irene. As it moved inland it created massive amounts of flooding in areas west of the coastline, which were more heavily damaged. After it passed, there was so much flooding and saturation that the rainwater didn’t get a chance to perk out. We had water coming down from the tributaries, estuaries, and filling up the bay. We experienced flooding after that storm. The storm of ’92 we looked at, and again, if you look at the special constraints of what we had in terms of the amount of beach, what I told you before about the dune…needing to have depth, breath, and width. Well, we didn’t have enough breadth. There was enough beach to build a dune, our dune line is at 22 feet elevation, and that’s what DEP permits.

When you got into Seaside Heights, Ortley Beach, and Lavallette, those areas got hit very hard because there was limited amount of landmass between the construction or roadways and the water’s edge. We used all of our resources available. We used the weather forecast. We become glued to the TV, whenever there’s a major event. We dialed into all the different weather services. We paid close attention to the different models because storms, although they may resemble one another, every storm is like a fingerprint. They’re all unique, so they all have different characteristics. Again, this storm, nearly a thousand miles across, and coming together at the high tide and full moon, we knew ahead of time the kind of problems we would have. We worked with the police department to try to force people to evacuate. Even though there was a mandatory evacuation, a lot of people chose to ignore it and stay behind, and that created problems as the storm came closer to land. In preparing for any event like this, you call on all your resources, and that’s exactly what we did.

What was your general perception of how big this storm was going to be? Were you aware of how big it became?

I was not surprised at all. I’ve been in public works since 2007. Prior to that I was in the State Police. I retired from there in 2005. I worked at the logistics operation of 9/11 in Caven Point, and I was there for 18 months. I also worked during the storm of ’92, the perfect storm of ’91. My roles there were really controlling people and keeping them off the barrier island, so I witnessed these storms first hand. I also have a captain’s license, so I’m trained in meteorology. When I saw these things coming together, I knew we were in really, really bad shape, and I prepared my crew. We met with the governing body, with the police department, with emergency services. Everybody comes together because it’s an “all hands on deck” operation. There was tremendous awareness in town of what was coming. We did the best we could to protect our people. In most cases, it was telling. People closest to the water boarded up their houses and went somewhere else because of the sheer magnitude of the storm. They were looking at it as a 36 – 48 hour event, and again, we talked earlier about buying time with a sacrificial dune line. You start chipping away and to watch the erosion as the water levels rise, just from the full moon, and then this monster storm that’s pushing wind on shore and building 12 – 15 foot waves, and it just carves away at the base of the dune. It was extremely apparent that we weren’t going to do well. My only hope was that the storm was going to turn and that would’ve given us some relief, but as it turned out it bared right down on our little neck of the woods. It hammered us.

To give you a personal observation, the house on the end of Harding Avenue, in the southern end of Ortley Beach, that property line is probably 40 feet from the water’s edge at high tide, basically they were right on the water. Sunday afternoon, before the storm hit, my wife and I took a ride over to the beach just to see, because the tide had started to come up and the waves were starting to build, and yet the storm was still 300 miles off shore. I went up there to see how the secondary dune line was doing and it was already gone. The permanent dune line was starting to erode and that house, at the end of Harding Avenue, had already lost its deck and water began rushing through it. The house was starting to come apart. This was 36 hours before the storm had made landfall! I turned to my wife and said, “Take a good look around because none of this is going to be here, it’s all going to be gone.” I said, “This whole area will be lucky if there’s an island left after this.”

We weren’t lucky. It was every bit as bad as I thought it was going to be. The one thing I didn’t plan on was the breach at Mantoloking. What happened was, we’ve got two inlets that impact Barnegat Bay: Barnegat to the south and Manasquan to the north. Manasquan Inlet takes water from the ocean and brings it up about a mile to a man-made structure called Point Pleasant Canal, which is two miles long. It’s got steel on both sides, and it modulates the water level between Barnegat Bay and the Manasquan River. The water comes in Manasquan, it goes up to the canal, off into the estuary and tributaries, filters down into upper Barnegat Bay and then travels down Barnegat Bay, where it meets the current coming up from Barnegat inlet. Then it meets somewhere around Toms River/Brick. The Mantoloking breach was right at the base of the Mantoloking Bridge, which is only a couple miles from Toms River. What happened was, it cut that inlet through, that was about 200 feet wide, 25 feet deep, and the water came rushing unimpeded into upper Barnegat Bay. That caused massive amounts of flooding in back bays, massive property damage in Brick, Snug Harbor, Silverton, Shelter Cove, Toms River, Hind Beach, Beachwood, and Berkley. All of those towns on the mainland side of the bay have never experienced that type of flooding, and people were trapped in their homes. They had a voluntary evacuation because they weren’t barrier island residents, and most chose to stay. Most of them got trapped. The magnitude was incredible.

Mantoloking Inlet breached somewhere around 10 – 11p.m. and it just carved right through, like a knife through butter. It took out land mass and structures, cars and boats, and just washed them right into the bay, and that just made the water level rise even more. I think they said it rose six feet in a matter of 45 minutes. Just imagine. It overcame bulkheads. Anyone on a slab had water up to their windows. People that were lucky enough to have their homes built with a little more elevation fared a little better. Think about people who had cars parked, boats up on blocks. When that came in all of these things started floating around, not to mention all of the debris that broke off from the barrier island, including pieces of the boardwalk. It ended up on mainland Toms River and mainland Brick.

At about one o’clock in the morning, I got a call from the police department. We had pulled all of our roads crews in because it had gotten so bad. We were at the height of the storm, the winds were reaching 80 to 95 miles per hour, and it was just unsafe to have crews out anymore. We have a procedure for this situation. We send all of our crews to fire houses because they’re open 24/7. They stand down there, and then they’re on call. If an emergency services organization needs assistance orroad clearance, we escort them. Shortly after, I got a call from one of the guys at the police headquarters. You could tell the panic in his voice. He said, “Lou, we’re losing people, the mainland is flooded, the barrier island is gone, there’s Silverton firehouse underwater, Eastover fire house is underwater, there is water across Fisher Boulevard. That’s never happened in my entire life down here, I’ve never seen that. People stuck in their houses will die.” By this time all the power was out and transformers were blowing. They sound like cannons going off in the middle of the night.

It scared the hell out of me. There are live wires down, they hit something wet, they start snapping back and forth like a snake with sparks flying…dangerous situation. Debris was flying all over the place, you name it. It literally was like a movie. It is crazy. I reached out to the foreman and said, “We’ve got problems and the emergency services people can’t get to the people stuck in their homes.” We had nine front loaders go out to strategic points around the town and hooked up with the emergency services people and they took either a cop or a rescue swimmer, put him in the truck, and went to people houses to take them out of the second story window through six feet of water. We brought them back to high ground, dumped them off and went back to get more.

We picked up nearly 500 people that day of the storm. These equipment operators are not trained rescue persons, but in extreme situation, we have to adapt and come up with a solution. Otherwise these people may have tried to swim for safety and there’s no way you could get through that water. These operators are going down, their only light is from their truck, things flying everywhere, the waters churning all around them, they don’t even know where the roadway is. They were judging by telephone poles and the houses to see where the roads were. Talk about a heroic act, and again, these guys are not cops, not firemen. Equipment operators saved a lot of people’s lives. We had zero fatalities in Toms River, and that is really the most important thing. That’s the thing that personally I’m most proud of. It was a team effort. The supervisors made the call, the foreman out in the streets, and they executed it flawlessly. We were able to get through it and it all worked out pretty well.

We worked all day on Sunday into Monday night. Sunday was an off day, but we worked anyway. Once we had done all we could and the tide came up to the point where we could no longer work on the beach, everyone went home. I told everybody to rest, since we’ll be at it again tomorrow morning. We had everything prepared. We had stationed equipment around the town, we made sure everything was fueled up in the event of power outages and we had generators, but those are mechanical things and they sometimes fail, so what we did was we filled everything up and we made sure everything was running properly, had everything ready to go and we stationed strategically around the town.

The town is 45 square miles, and we have 630 miles of road, so there is an awful lot to cover. As things happened we addressed them, we had done all the preparation we could, so we had to just wait. I did try to take a break right about midnight on Monday night and that’s when I got the call from the police department. When I told my guys to stand down, but as soon as I hit the pillow the phone went off and we were back out in the field again. For these things, you catch sleep when you can. Sometimes you sleep in your office. I live in town, so if I wanted to run home and catch a catnap, I could. But basically for about 48 hours we worked non-stop until the storm passed.

As the storm subsided, when did the recovery phase begin?

Immediately. On the barrier island, there was a State of Emergency and the bridge, the base of the bridge, had been washed out. There really was no way to get over to Pelican Island. I was able to get over there in a machine, but by that time, probably 98 percent of the island had been evacuated. There was no power. Gas mains were broken, the road was destroyed, gas was free flowing into the air and there were very few people that were actually there and those who were, they were being evacuated.

On the mainland in the bay front, in the Bayshore areas, Shelter Cove, Snug Harbor, Silverton, Money Island, and areas right along the Toms River and Barnegat Bay, they were built in the ‘30s and ‘40s and were very small properties. There may be 50-60 lots close together with small houses, right on lagoons. These had massive damage, massive flooding. Those people, 95 percent of them are year-round residents. What happened was they started emptying all of their belongings out and putting them curb side. There was no power. They had taken, in some cases, seven feet to eight feet of water inside their homes. They immediately started taking all of their belongings and piling them out on the curb.

It was extremely dramatic. In the first month, we worked non-stop seven days a week, from sun up to sun down from the 31st October to Christmas. We took Thanksgiving off and Christmas off. But essentially, we worked seven days a week. It wasn’t 9 – 5; it was sun up to sun down. After that, we had to stand down because there was no power. We were without power in some sections for about 14 days. We have snow plow contractors that augment our operations, in the event of a snowstorm. I was able to use their contract and bring them in, taking two loaders and pushing them together, filling up a bucket with debris and dumping it into a thirty-yard container. Bring that to the landfill and do it all over again.

Then, under emergency services, I was able to contract with a waste company, and they brought in about 50 thirty-yard containers, dropped them in some neighborhoods, and people would fill them up. This went on night and day in that initial period. To give you perspective on the volume, we have 36,000 properties in Toms River. In a typical year, we do 40 thousand tons of debris at the landfill. In the first 30 days, we had 40 thousand tons, and that was limited to 10 thousand homes that were directly affected by the storm. It was just a staggering amount, and the cost of that was $3.25 million in tipping fees at the landfill in the first 30 days.

After the first 30 days, we had met with FEMA a number of times. FEMA comes in and they offer reimbursements, so we had to change everything. They had to go out and we were able to partner with a company that specialized in disaster recovery. We were able to turn over most of that operation to them, and that was a seven-day a week operation as well. That went on until, I believe, March. Then we brought in a secondary contractor and that didn’t work out at all. I fired them after two weeks. Since late March and early April 2013, we collected storm debris using township equipment and that ran up until the one year anniversary.

At that point FEMA denied us an extension, so the entire operation is done, but the last count in addition to those 40 thousand tons last count, we had half a million cubic yards of debris that we collected. Just staggering amounts of debris. The debris was also masonry, it was asphalt from people’s driveways, it was vegetated debris like downed trees. Just staggering amounts, and its still going on. A lot of people have still not done anything in terms of restoration.

How do you feel about the federal and state response to the storm?

I’ll tell ya, the governor’s response was absolutely spectacular. The governor has been out here numerous times. He took an agency like the DEP, which is a regulatory agency that causes somebody in my position a lot of aggravation, and made them into a service organization. They made sure we complied with all of the federal environmental requirements so we didn’t do further damage. You don’t want to take a situation like this, and on top of it contaminate the environment. Instead of them coming in and citing us and being an obstruction, they came in and helped us solve problems, which is a very unique dynamic. It doesn’t occur. DEP has been through the governor’s office and has been tremendous.

The federal response has been…a lot of deception. They come in, right out of the gate. They send a crew, you have a mass meeting, and they bring these people. It is very well orchestrated, and it gives you real false sense of security that they will come in and help you out. They start to come in and they bring different teams. They put together a project work sheet, a document that speaks specifically to this event. What you come to find out is that they constantly cycle through new people. You start working with one FEMA representative and then three, four, five days later they’re gone and you start with another one. I can’t tell you how many times I had to start and stop and regurgitate information that had already been provided. Extremely disorganized, extremely, extremely detrimental to progress. I can’t tell you just how bad they’ve been. I mean they really have hurt the operation.

As you drive around, what do you see? Do you see progress?

There’s a lot of progress and I didn’t have any delusions in the beginning that this was a quick fix. People are impatient. They expect things to be done yesterday and they don’t understand that things are going to take a long time to happen. You think about infrastructure being damaged, like the state highways, roads, utilities drainage, and sewers, everything that goes along with it. That’s before you could ever start to rebuild a particular residence. You need to put all of that back together. So, it’s a very long process. And to do it right, takes time.

How do you think the storm has brought the community together?

Just a general sense of compassion and volunteerism. I’ve seen people reaching out to their neighbors, helping. I’ve seen people fundraising and volunteering their time. Anything that people could do for one another. We had shelters set up after the storm and we had so many donations come in that we actually had to hire someone to manage the donations and volunteers. We had all of these resources, but no way to manage them. It was friends of friends, neighbors helping neighbors. You go to a house where somebody’s power was out and their service was down, and you look across the street and it’s all orange cords from people sharing power; people borrowing energy from their neighbors. It was very, very positive. Especially in the neighborhoods where people are full timers, they interact with each other and they’re like family. It was just very rewarding to see all that.

What do you think can be learned from Hurricane Sandy?

The biggest thing to understand is our susceptibility to natural elements. Also, the preparation and hardening of our coastline is most important. The biggest challenge was our lack of communication. Everyone relies on cell phones, but when the powers out, how do you communicate? We had the sanitation workers give flyers to the town. We also instituted Nixle [a system of communication that connects public safety, municipalities, residents and communities they serve, through text, email and social media updates]. People have to recognize themselves though, that they have to go back to the basics. Get a battery-powered radio, flashlights, and candles. We have back up power, but we have to be very creative how we disseminate information. Information is critical because people need to know that they are not forgotten. They have to know that there is a plan. I think we did a good job of that in our town.

Interviewed by Max Santiago
Assisted by Bryan Criscitelli
Edited by Joanna Felsenstein
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013