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We wanted to get the people out

Kyle Grace

Kyle Grace is a police officer and deputy emergency management coordinator in charge of operations in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. During Hurricane Sandy, he was the incident commander in charge of all tactical decisions being made throughout the storm and its immediate aftermath. In this capacity he helped to coordinate the response of the Fire Department, Police Department, Emergency Management, Public Works, and other municipal entities. In his narrative, he talks about coordinating the evacuation of Point Pleasant Beach prior to the storm, as well as the actions taken by first responders in the storm’s aftermath.

 

When a State of Emergency is declared in a town in New Jersey, the Emergency Management Coordinator basically becomes the overall commander. They become the overall operations officer for the town. They coordinate the police. They coordinate the Fire, the EMS, the Public Works, the Building Departments, and Health Department. They oversee all that. It’s basically done in the State of New Jersey with what’s called an emergency operations plan, which is preset. Its predesigned as an “all-hazards,” meaning it can be adapted. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fire or if it’s a storm like Sandy. It’s all done within that plan.

Regarding Hurricane Sandy, when did you become involved in the response?

Interesting enough, just to start the whole story here, I actually was in Florida at Disney a couple days before Sandy hit up here. When I was leaving they were starting to get the first effects of Sandy down in Florida, so I saw parts of Hurricane Sandy in Florida and New Jersey. I landed at JFK airport on the Thursday night before Sandy at 10pm, knowing that probably in about two to three days we were going to be doing a full-fledged evacuation of the Borough of Point Pleasant Beach. We oversee that. We’re the ones that do the evacuation orders; we’re the ones that make all those final decisions on when that happens. I got back into town around 11:30, and I immediately started the planning the phases of evacuation for the town. I just knew what was going to happen here. I read enough, even being on vacation, to know that we were definitely going to have a situation. We were going to have something where we wanted to get the people out.

We actually had a good “dress rehearsal” with Hurricane Irene back in August of 2011, where we actually tested out the emergency operations plan. It wasn’t to the extent obviously of Sandy, but it was a good way to test what we had in our plan. So it was actually rather easy for us to issue the evacuation orders and get it out to the residents, and then get the town evacuated the way it should. The main thing was evacuation.

So I probably worked till three in the morning that Thursday into the Friday. I think 9:00 in the morning we had our first meeting on Friday with Fire, EMS, Police, Public Works, Borough Administrator, and Town Council to start to brief them on the magnitude of what we could face. Members of Bay Head and Mantoloking Emergency Management and Point Pleasant Borough Emergency Management also responded. We’re pretty good, our Emergency Management. People look to us for maybe a little guidance because they don’t have all know the knowledge or plans. We briefed everyone from everything from what the weather’s reporting to if we evacuate this is when we’re going to do it the requirements of police, fire and EMS during that evacuation stuff like that.

Ultimately, Saturday we decided to do a full on evacuation of town. When we did the evacuation of Point Pleasant Beach, we did an evacuation of what we called “east of the railroad tracks,” and then also parts of our northern part of town that right along the Manasquan River. Anything that was near water we made a mandatory evacuation and then a voluntary evacuation for everyone else. The unique thing about Point Pleasant Beach is that, I would say, our town was probably 90 percent evacuated when it all came down to it. That’s a very quick estimate, but a lot of people got out; a lot of people heeded the warnings. We found it to be good that we didn’t rely on shelters in town. Anybody who had to go to a shelter we basically put them on county buses and brought them to the shelter and I believe that number was somewhere maybe around 30 people. That’s all we had to transport of people wanting to go to a shelter.

So that was a big time positive. The way we do it here at Point Pleasant Beach, we do door to door evacuation. We use our part-time police officers and we strategically grid out the town and send police officers into the neighborhoods to actually make contact and hand out a piece of paper to each person. If they were not to make contact with the resident or somebody at that house, they had to write it down. We then send them out a second time 12 hours later to try it again if they don’t make contact again they then have to document it again and then we’ll send somebody out a third time, so we’ll do what we call “evacuation routing.” We actually did that three times in town to make sure we got most of the people out. From that standpoint, our evacuation went very well.

Then it was just bracing, getting our assets ready, making sure were fueled up, the generators were working, and your police officers are established. When we do a shutdown of the town along the railroad tracks, we have to actually station a police officer at every single railroad crossing to make sure people don’t go in to that area

In my job as the incident commander, I’m not necessarily in the field. I’m not the guy in the trucks. I’m not the guy riding around. I’m the guy in what we call our EOC: Emergency Operations Center. I remember sitting in the EOC as that second high tide starting to come. The reports coming in were just something from like growing up here going through a nor’easter. It was something you have never heard before. I remember sitting there and I’m getting reports, “the waters down on Baltimore Avenue.” That’s two blocks in. Ten minutes later someone’s like the “waters on St. Louis Avenue”. Our police headquarters is right at the railroad tracks on New Jersey Avenue, that’s also our operations center. The water came down St. Louis Avenue and it started floating around our headquarters. A lot of our part time officers had cars parked in that side lot, so we had to start bailing our cars out of there because they’re all going to get flooded out. We actually put them in the car wash right across the street just to get them out of that area. The water moves so fast from block to block at such a quick amount of time that it was hard to imagine and we’re lucky that our headquarters was just high enough where the water came to the back of the headquarters door and stayed outta there.

Most of the town was evacuated, but there were people who did stay behind. 911 calls started coming in. We had people trapped in attics in some of the one-story houses. Jenkinson’s Aquarium had a group that decided to stay to assist the animals during the storm in case something happened. We started getting 911 calls from them looking to get rescued out of there, but it was too late we couldn’t get our high-water rescue vehicles into those areas even if we tried. We had quite a bit of police officers and fire fighters that went into the waters and actually made some rescues, got people out of attics and whatnot. There were some heroic efforts police officers and fire department officials made that night to go out there and rescue people.

We lost one of our firehouses on Arnold Avenue. It had over 3 feet of water throughout it and they had to abandon everything in the firehouse.

The people in that firehouse had to come across to Loral Avenue firehouse to operate out of there. So that was something interesting, we lost a whole firehouse in Point Pleasant Beach. I personally got out of headquarters somewhere around midnight. I knew the next morning was going to bring us everything from more rescues, to damage assessment, to health issues, to the cleanup of sand and debris and stuff like that. I remember we came up to the railroad tracks on Broadway and there were boats everywhere. There had to be fifty boats littered across the whole street as far as you can see.

This is the same night?

Yeah it was still night. It was about midnight, and the whole street was littered with boats that were on dry dock or they came out of the water and they were just littered all over the street that’s how far the storm surged. I’m not talking about a 20 foot dingy. I’m talking 40-foot boats where you’re going, “how can that even get thrown there?”

After dodging through boats and everything else we were able to just channel drive and get up on Ocean Avenue. I can remember looking up into the bungalow row houses off foundations. Houses that weren’t there before and have actually been moved completely off its foundation into other places. It was absolutely wild to see what you saw. The Surf Taco building was severely damaged, the boardwalk ripped apart down at that southern end of town. That same boardwalk at the southern end of town was also destroyed during Irene; they just got done fixing that part of the boardwalk for the summer of 2012.

I think it was Channel 7 News was filming in our Exxon station at the base of the bridge, and I said pullover. Let me get up on the air. I gave a quick synopsis from Point Pleasant Beach for them and I said, “We’re asking all residents not to come here right now. This is not a place to sightsee. Please wait for emergency management officials to advise you when it is safe to come back here. Right now the town is not safe, we face catastrophic damage from the storm.” Then I went back to headquarters and worked the next 72 hours straight.

We also got a direct contact with JCP&L, which is the local power and light company, to find out what the status of the power was. Because that was important; not necessarily getting the power on right away, but to make sure it was off because there was so many wires and poles down. We want to make that our rescue, first responders, fire, and police personal were doing these search and rescue operations safely.

A good thing that did happen with us is that the Ocean County Road Department was responsible for Ocean Avenue with all that sand and all stuff like that. They came in and started to remove that sand off Ocean Avenue, which was huge. If the storm is going to be this bad, you gotta have these types of partnerships in place. That’s something had in place which was a positive to get out cleanup going and to get our cleanup done a little bit faster. Hence to why I think we didn’t have has much media coverage because our cleanup was so squared away so quick with our cleanup that people thought, “oh wow.” They didn’t really think, “how did they get cleaned up so quick?” … We were able to clean up so quick and get the major cleanup portions done so quickly that we weren’t out there in the forefront as much being as damaged as a lot of the other towns.

The next couple days, they just blend together. It was damage assessment and search and rescue in the houses that were damaged, making sure that everything was okay and just following through and doing what we’re supposed to do. Just following that emergency operations plan. And then that snow storm hit a couple days later, which was one of the most interesting things I’ve been a part of. Those next few days too we worked with JCP&L big time, which was right across the street from our police department. We really got to know the people from JCP&L. I actually worked as a personal liaison, I would check in with them about every 5 hours on different power situations.

We had dedicated volunteers there that cooked around the clock. Sabrina Ferreti, Carol Dempsey, our Police Chief’s wife and then we had two of our council people come and do the cleanup at night, but they served three meals a day for about 12 or 13 days just for the emergency responders and the people working in town. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and the food was good too. I almost felt guilty because my wife would be sitting with no power here in the house, and I had steak for dinner and she’s eating macaroni and cheese of the stove. I felt terrible. That was one of the most amazing things that happened at Point Pleasant Beach. Just to watch what those ladies and men put together in the kitchen it was that thing where you would go over for your meal and you would see the Ocean County ordnance, the public works guys, you would see our first aid, you would see the fire guys; it was that time you could actually relax and just sit back for a little while. Although my phone didn’t stop ringing and the radio didn’t stop going, it was good for the first responders.

I just know in this town people came together. The local Point Pleasant Beach High School football team got together and went out to clean up houses. This is a small community and growing up here, it’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody. The town came together, people helped random people and then you had so much other people coming in wanting to help from other towns. It really was amazing to watch groups of people walking down the streets looking to go help people.

What are the biggest challenges you faced in the aftermath of the storm?

I think the biggest thing right now is just dealing with FEMA and the reimbursement process. Besides being the OEM coordinator I had to deal with FEMA myself, and the Borough Administrator and I know the situation with FEMA. I know we’re going through as a town trying to get reimbursement; I don’t even want to think what it’s like for a homeowner. So I think the major thing for us was the aftermath dealing with FEMA and some of the red tape within FEMA, but for the most part everything really worked smoothly. We had such good working relationships with JCP&L. It came to a point where JCP&L actually gave me circuit maps that I reviewed and I could tell them what was damaged. I would go out with them and actually go through stuff to see if get power on certain parts of town. That was really good that we had the type of partnership with them.

From an emergency management standpoint we weren’t getting a lot of requests from residents, saying we need this or we need that. So we weren’t talking donations. We would get phone calls, and I basically said we don’t have a need for that. Because what happens is that if you keep on taking in tons and tons of donations and it doesn’t go anywhere well now you have a problem because what are you going to do with all that stuff it’s tough to get rid of it. There were a few clothing drives and stuff like that and even though you said don’t do it they kind of did it anyway and then they got stuck with all this old clothing that people were just dropping off old clothing trying to get rid of it. It’s tough to stop that you can’t say you can’t do that. Salvation Army was in here, the Red Cross was in here. I remember the Red Cross trucks lined up and down the streets just offering food to the resident’s taking care of their houses it was good.

If another storm was to come, what do you think people should take away from this?

There’s so much going on right now with these FEMA flood maps and the raising of houses. There are a lot of houses being raised; there are a lot of houses that are being built up, being demoed. The Building Department here gets more and more every day to bring the house up above that FEMA flood standard. When you live on the shore, it’s one of the risks and chances you’re going to take. It is what it is. Because there’s no better place to live and no better place to grow up then in a town like Point Pleasant Beach there’s something amazing about it and so of the stuff you’re going to have to deal with when you live in an awesome town.

Do you feel optimistic about the recovery?

Yes absolutely. I know there are some homeowners that are still going through hell with FEMA and the insurance companies and stuff like that. But you see recovery already. I think we had a pretty good summer season. They rebuilt 75 percent of the boardwalk. There is a major portion they’re actually replacing now or going to be replacing real soon. They went into co-op with Jenkinson’s to replace what they call the plaza area. If you’ve been on out boardwalk, it’s basically the area where all the arcades are and Kohr’s ice cream and Martell’s. The town actually went into a co-op with Jenkinson’s to rebuild that. That’s good to see a private and public entity getting into an agreement over something like that. We have seen recovery, which is really good.

Interviewed by Oscar Nazar and Aren Moy
Edited by Colin Kochenash
Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey
Recorded November 9, 2013