Paul Daley has resided in Toms River, New Jersey since 1970. During Hurricane Sandy, he served as Acting Coordinator for the township’s Office of Emergency Management. A year after the storm, Daley reflects on his experiences with Emergency Services as they responded to those in need. His story shows the importance of being prepared for potential disasters, as well as the ways in which the storm brought out the best in his community.
Can you describe what it was like working as part of the response team for the storm?
During the storm it was so busy. When we first went over there we were in shock. Pictures don’t do it justice. Once you’re over there and you actually see it, it’s surreal. It’s something you see on a movie set, it truly is. Then after a while we just had so much work to do that you just became numb, like once in a blue moon you’d stop and look at it but other than that you really just had so much work to do and I didn’t really have time for it. But after when things started slowing down a little bit that’s when you look back and think. It was just crazy.
To this day I don’t know how a lot of us did it. My first day off and most people’s first day off was Thanksgiving and we were working 22 hours a day. First 3 days we didn’t stop at all. Then a lot of us would sleep either at the fire house or I would sleep at the police department. I would go home, put the gasoline in the generator, take a hot shower in the cold house, and then go right back to work. You’re basically working on adrenaline. But you feel real bad for the people.
What you try to do in an event like this is a 12 hour shift: 12 on, 12 off. But that was impossible in the beginning. There just wasn’t enough people and there was too much to do. So, we all had to suck it up for a while. A lot of people we’d tell them to, like the firemen, you’re going to be out for a long time and the storms hitting in three days, so go home and get your stuff in order.
But the thing with Toms River is we have good communication with the other emergency services. We all get along real well. Sometimes with volunteer organizations you have people that want to do their own thing. Everybody followed directions. Everybody was on the same page. And that really helped a lot. And these guys, these firemen and EMS and all that, are pretty good at what they do, so we had a plan, we gave them the plan, they implemented it, and I didn’t have to worry about it, so that was nice. Here’s the plan, go do what you have to do, and report back to us every hour. And that’s what we did. So from that standpoint too I thought it went pretty well.
What we did is about a week before we had heard these storms were coming in so, we really started ramping up. Toms River is a large town and we have a lot of small towns over on the beach and you don’t want them all evacuating at different times. You want everybody on the same pace. So what we do is we get our plans out, we go over the plans, and we meet with our local fire companies, police departments, public works, and EMS. We all make sure we’re on the same page. We tell them what needs to be done, when they got to be manning their building because a lot of them are volunteer.
Then we also bring in the other towns around us to make sure we’re all on the same page and we let every town speak to see what their plans are, if they’re ready to go. And we also allow them to bring all their equipment over to Toms River. Actually, this High School [Toms River] East is a high elevation. We let them bring all their fire trucks they’re not using, police cars, garbage trucks, and they actually put them in the parking lot right here at High School East because that’s millions of dollars’ worth of equipment that could get damaged over there and it worked out really well for a lot of towns because of all the devastation.
So, we basically have our meetings and we decide when we’re going to evacuate, which actually the governor did that for us because he’s the one that put the evacuation order out. We just pretty much piggy backed off of him. We all have to sign an emergency declaration in town which gives us certain authority to do certain things if we have to: tow vehicles off the roadway, things like that. But it also helps us seek reimbursement from FEMA for all the costs associated with the storm, so there’s things that we have to put in place because of that. If you don’t have that in place you can’t seek reimbursement and right now we’re at 40 million dollars, I think.
And, so, at the meeting 85 people showed up from different towns. Everybody got to speak. They basically look at Toms River for direction because we’re such a large community and after everybody speaks we basically say, “Okay, this is the way it’s going to be.” You know we’re going to have people manning different check points, different intersections if the lights go out. Then we decided when we were going to evacuate. We were all going to evacuate at the same time, 4 pm. I think it was 4 pm the day before the storm is what we all decided. And then we work from there. And then from there we have to work up the shelters.
This was a shelter, High School East where we’re at. High School North about 5 miles away was another shelter and High School North is a regional shelter which means people will come from anywhere they want. We would take them in anyway, so we’re taking in all these other towns’ residents that are seeking shelter, so we’re responsible now to feed them, shelter them, find them space to live for a while, and we’re doing it on the school’s dime. The school’s paying for the food, things like that. And also we need security which all came from Toms River Township, so that took a while to get ready and our Community Emergency Response Team, which is [made up of residents who] have taken basic lifesaving classes, helped set up the shelters, run the shelters, things like that. So it was a collaborative effort amongst a lot of people. But all this has to be all set up and organized and it all is through the office of emergency management, which is what I run.
What was it like during the storm?
Well, biggest thing is people here have heard, “Evacuate, evacuate,” and then nothing ever happens, so it’s hard to convince people. I think we did a pretty good job this time. I think people were finally realizing. It was on the news so much that something was really going to happen, so a lot of people did heed the warning. So, right before the storm hit we’re bunkering down and what we’re doing now is we’re giving orders to the fire departments and the first aid squad, the ambulances, that once the winds hit a certain mile per hour sustained they’re going to be pulled off the island and they’re going to be pulled into safety. So, that did happen.
The night of the storm, when the storm hit, we actually pulled everybody off of the island. A couple police officers stayed over there. I think one fire department stayed over there, and then the water started rising and that’s when the 911 phone started ringing. I think they had 3,200 emergency calls in one day. I happened to be in the communication center and people were calling in, they were in their attics, and they wanted us to come get them. Well we couldn’t get over because there’s a bridge, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the area, there’s a bridge going over to the barrier island. It was flooded right before the bridge and the water was rushing real fast. We had an army truck go through and hit the water and actually start floating down almost into the bay with all the rescue workers on it, so we had to pull them out. So, we had to wait until the next morning before we could go rescue people.
We had people calling that had kids in their attic. Their houses were filling up with gas and we couldn’t get to them. So, what we did is the police department made a list of people who needed help and as soon as we could get out there we made basically a beeline right to these houses and started rescuing people. We actually pulled five or six hundred people out the next day and brought them to shelters. During the night of the storm on the mainland, which is only about 2 miles from here, the bay started flooding and then flooded all of the houses on this side of the island. There were 550 rescues on front-end loaders from public works because the fire trucks couldn’t make it through the water. We had already lost fire trucks and things going through water that was just too deep. So, they brought in these front-end loaders and they put firemen and police officers in the front of it, brought it up to people’s houses and rescued over 535 or 550 people that night.
During the night we couldn’t get over to the beach but on the main land they were doing all these rescues all night long. Now you got to imagine it’s howling out, it’s raining, you can’t see at all because there’s no power whatsoever. And it’s raining real hard and these guys are going through water, you don’t know if there’s sinkholes there or not. So, these guys from public works aren’t rescue workers, they’re not firemen, they’re not used to this. So, we had to deal with these guys, make sure they’re all okay. And they did a remarkable job. But our fire companies were out there at command posts that were out at the scene at different areas of town that were doing their rescues at certain sections of the town. So, that’s what was going on all night long.
During those three days was communication very difficult?
No, we have our radios and the IT guys were right at the police department in case there were any problems. What we did is when we brought in other agencies, like we had say ambulances from Pennsylvania, we would give them our radio and we would also give them one of our employees to go with them. So, communication was fine with the agencies that come from other places that don’t have our radio system.
So, what were the biggest challenges you faced in helping people, after the initial response?
The initial was the search and rescue. People didn’t want to come out of their houses, so they would have to go door to door over on the barrier island, Ortley beach, and go door to door and actually get people out of their homes. So, not only that, the other towns were doing the same thing, so there was 5 or 600 people that actually stayed over there during the storm that we actually brought over to the shelters. So that was a big challenge. Another challenge was we didn’t have enough people and there was so much devastation we kind of didn’t know where to start. So they ended up making a plan, they grid out on maps how they’re going to do things. The biggest thing is they had to clear the roads.
The sinkholes were just popping up everywhere, so that was a problem. Then after that one of the biggest challenges was the shelters. The shelters were packed and the people that were helping running the shelters were getting worn out. When they were leaving they weren’t coming back and that was hard to sustain because they were here for 7 or 8 days and you get a 6 by 6 area to live in for a week and then from there you don’t know where you’re going to live. That was tough too, that was tough to deal with.
Did you work with FEMA? How do you think they responded?
FEMA trains us. You’re on your own for the first 72 hours and that was exactly how it went. We, as a township and as a county, were on our own for the first 3 days. We got a little bit of help from FEMA but not much and then they started coming in from all over the country. So from a response and resource standpoint for the emergency responders I thought they did a real good job. If you ask people now that are trying to rebuild their homes you’re going to get a different story. I’m not involved in that. I’m only answering for the response, the people that came in to help us. I think they did a pretty good job. They did exactly what was expected you know with the resources that they had here.
Were there any other government agencies you had to work with?
You name it, the health department for instance. In a shelter you have to make up a little mini hospital, so the health department comes in and they handle that. Board of social services psychiatrists came in to talk to the people. You name it, every agency was involved. County road department, the state forest fire service as silly as it sounds came in with chainsaws because there were so many trees down. They came in with 30 guys from all over the country, so pretty much every agency that is out there was involved in this.
Do you have any specific stories from when you were out trying to respond?
I can give you a semi-funny story. The next morning we had the buses lined up over on the barrier island. As the people were being rescued out of their houses they would come to the buses and they would be brought over to here or Toms River North. A lady over there had a 250 pound pig. So I’m standing there and I see a pig walk by. They got the pig on the bus and they brought the pig here and they gave them their own classroom with the pig. I think they were here for about three days.
How do you feel the town has progressed in the rebuilding process?
Well I think the township, the leadership that they have, especially the administrator that we have, has been very aggressive. He’s always been first in line for any grants that the state has been given out. The state and FEMA told us that Toms River Township is number one in everything. We’ve been first in the rebuilding, the permits, everything we’re supposed to do we’ve done. From what I’m told, that’s not my opinion, the township has done a phenomenal job. From a personal standpoint, I think from preplanning to response to recovery the township has done an excellent job. Could they have done things differently or better? Sure. Absolutely.
Actually, personally I thought [the recovery process] was going to be quicker. People that have done this before have been saying, “No, it’s going to be longer than you think,” and it has been. The problem with the township now is there are still houses that haven’t been touched. So from the township standpoint now the township has to find out what the homeowner is going to do. Are they going to rebuild it? Did they just walk away from it? Now it’s becoming a health hazard. It’s been a year, so now the township is going out and they’re citing these homes. If they find out that nothing’s going on they actually cite them. Or if the township has to they’ll take the house down and put a lean on the property.
So they’re at that stage now where enough is enough. You guys have homes either you’re rebuilding them or you’re not. So they’re at a point now where it’s like another phase. A lot of homes have been torn down. The township has a FEMA grant to tear homes down if the people can’t afford to do it. The homeowner has to apply for it. They have to go through this rigorous questionnaire, so if they get accepted into this grant the township goes out to bid to tear down these homes, so we’ll tear them down and we’ll get reimbursed by FEMA. Then you have people that are waiting for their insurance money. They haven’t gotten it yet, so those homes we don’t touch. Then you have ones that are abandoned.
So we’re right now trying to identify the ones that nothing’s going on, we haven’t heard anything from homeowners, and the people who live next door they’re all rebuilt and now they’re upset with the neighbor next door because they haven’t done anything. So we’re trying to identify those homes right now through the building department, through the engineering department, so that’s the phase that we’re in right now. That’s taking a while because everything has to be done legally. Once a program comes up it might be three or four months before the township can implement it. Then you have surrounding towns that aren’t anywhere near that phase yet. Depends who you talk to if it’s good or not. I think it is. Again some homeowners aren’t too happy right now.
What challenges do you think people are still facing?
There’s huge problems with the insurance companies not wanting to pay. People have to elevate their homes with these new flood-based elevation maps. So you have homes that have water damage that have to be raised eight feet and that’s a problem. That’s a huge cost. Now people have to take out these mortgages, if they can even afford it, to do all this and a lot of people are just waiting to see if the laws are going to change, which they’re not. So we see those challenges. The tax rate and the tax base is way down, so the township is not bringing in the money because the houses aren’t there, so the township is losing out from that standpoint. So the challenges of getting people back in their homes are still there a year later.
Do you feel the community has gotten closer because of Sandy?
I think some people didn’t because they’re still angry about not being in their homes, which is perfectly normal. But absolutely, I think it’s brought a lot of people closer together. The fire company is closer together, the people in shelters have made friends and from what I hear they’re still friends today. So yeah, absolutely, I think overall yes it has brought the community closer together.
And it has brought people to pay attention to preparedness more so than they have before. After Sandy, probably six months after, I was going out doing talks to every organization you can name because everybody now wants to get on board with preparedness. And actually during the storm and right after the storm people are calling me, or before the storm, and calling me asking me questions, and I’m like well now is the time to put your personal preparedness plan into place, which I knew they didn’t have one. People would be like, “Uh.” I’m like, “You don’t have one?” This is not the time not to have a plan you know. We got thousands of phone calls a day and some people think that you’re going to give them curb to curb service and when you have 100,000 people and only a few hundred of us that doesn’t happen. You’ve got to take care of yourself. So I think there’s a lot more people doing that today than there was before Sandy.
Interviewed by Richard Levenson and Paul Duarte
Edited by Meghan O’Brien
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013