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We can't stop the storm

Dennis Quinn

Dennis Quinn is Chief of Staff in the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. Created in 2006, the Office is charged with overseeing statewide emergency response coordination and working to build resiliency against a host of threats to the state and its residents. Throughout Hurricane Sandy, Dennis helped to coordinate the efforts of state, federal, and private sector agencies in responding to the needs of affected New Jerseyans. In his narrative, he speaks of the steps that were taken to prepare for the storm, and he assesses the success of the Governor and state agencies in the  initial response to the storm’s aftermath.

How did your office help to prepare the state for Hurricane Sandy?

Our office has a planning bureau, which is stationed up in our office in Newark. Our planning bureau has been working on catastrophic planning many years before Superstorm Sandy. They put together State sheltering plans, debris management plans, and housing plans for the State. So they have done a lot of pre-work to that. As the storm started developing, we started putting certain pieces of the puzzle into play. The storm hit on October 29th 2013. We started wrapping up about three or four days in advance of the storm hitting New Jersey. As we saw the storm materializing, we started analyzing the weather reports. In order to understand what exactly what was starting to develop, we started pre-deploying staff to the State Emergency Operation Center (EOC). That’s three days in advance. We operate a function over there called the Private Sector Desk. The Private Sector Desk is staffed by representatives from our Critical Infrastructure Detection Bureau, Department of Homeland Security representatives, and representatives from the Private Sector. So we staff that Desk to be the one-stop-shopping. That is for all Private Sector questions as the storm is approaching, as the storm is hitting, after the storm hits, and then during the recovery phase.

What was your role?

So, at that point I was the Chief of Staff for the Director’s Office so I supported the Director, who is a Cabinet member. As a Cabinet member, the Director was in every meeting with Governor Christie and all of the Cabinet. As information was being processed and as resource requests or requests for actions were made by the Cabinet, I would help coordinate and execute those particular missions.

Did this office stay open during the storm?

We were on weather essential staffing, so we did stay open throughout the storm. We had limited staff here, we had staff at the State EOC, and we deployed staff out to the State-supported shelters at Rutgers University and Monmouth University, to support any evacuations.

Your duties afterwards or once the storm hit; was there any special duties that occurred, because the storm had hit?

In preparation for the storm, we realized that there would be a mandatory evacuation of certain parts of the State, and we realized that at some point in time that local shelters could not, shelter all the people that needed to be sheltered because they did not have enough space. So we started activating, in coordination with the Department of Human Services and with the Red Cross, buildings that could serve as State shelters, to shelter people under the mandatory evacuation that couldn’t fit in a local shelter. So that required us to set up transportation for people to leave those impacted areas. To get people from Point A to Point B, to deploy a shelter tracking system so we knew everybody who has been evacuated, where they came from, how they got to the shelter we’re putting them in. We also maintained stockpiles of food, in cots, in blankets, all kinds of things shelters would need and started moving them into these State-supported shelters. And we also deployed some of our staff to help manage those shelters. After this is all done in coordination with the State Emergency Operation Center, with the Department of Human Services, the County OEM’s that were impacted, and obviously our office staff. So we maintained that posture staffing the Private Sector Desk, staffing the shelters, and anything the Governor wanted our office to do that were supporting those decisions that were being made.

As the storm was hitting, obviously there is a lot of chaos. So we were working with the State Office of Emergency Management to deploy resources around the State to affect emergency rescue, to supplement emergency communications that would go down, so a lot of things were happening as the surge was coming in. We were coordinating with New York City OEM, with the Coast Guard, with the County OEMs, so they were all involved in that phase when the storm was hitting. Power’s out, people were in the dark, the surge is coming in, and the tide is rising. A lot of phone calls were being made to 911, for people who needed to be rescued. The State Police began deploying their teams, even their Urban Search and Rescue teams. There were Marine aviation folks, who were flown to rescue folks, and they were being deployed during the storm to help rescue people and get people out of harm’s way. So we were involved with that at the Cabinet level, and down in the State EOC.

After the storm hit, we moved into a damage assessment phase. Now we’re trying to get a sense of what happened to the State, where are all the citizens, what has happened to their homes, and what has happened to the power? So now we’re working with State Emergency Management again, and we put up teams in helicopters to do damage assessments. So they go up with iPads, they’re photographing the damaged areas and sending information back to the State EOC so we can start getting a picture of what happened to us. Trying to get an idea of how many bridges were impacted, railroads impacted, roads, how many homes were lost, completely lost, and how many homes were severely damaged. We were calculating this damage assessment and we were part of that process with the State Office of Emergency Management. Some of the plans that we had put into effect we had been developing over a period of time: the housing plan, the debris removal plan. Things that we have on a shelf that we’ve been working on, we put into play. We were assigned to work with the Department of Community Affairs to help develop a housing plan through HUD, to identifying temporary housing, an inventory of empty homes in a state that we could put people in to. We worked with Human Services and a bunch of volunteer agencies to identify special services for these people. To provide food and clothes, you know, whatever these folks need. We were working with these agencies to make that happen.

How was the initial damage? Was it what you expected, or was it far greater?

I think we had a fairly good understanding of the kind of damage a surge can do. We had done an exercise a couple years prior to this storm that gave us an indication of what a surge can do, and what kind of damage can be done. We noticed that in Danfield in Bergen County, we sort of knew that the surge going up the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers would cause infrastructure damage upstream. So I think we had a good sense of, at the State EOC level, that this was significant, and the damage would be significant. So we had a good sense I think, but that may not have resonated as well with the Private Sector, who had assets in harm’s way that were mobile that could have been moved out. Like trucks companies, boat owners, and things like that. Things that if they understood better they could have gotten them out of harm’s way. But we knew it would be significant to infrastructure: to petroleum, to waste water, to water facilities, to housing, and to power. It wasn’t a wind driven event. If we had significant wind on top of the surge, we would have been in much worse shape. If you got a high wind, you’re losing rooftops, you’re losing telephone poles, and you’re losing power lines, so we really didn’t have that kind of damage. The damage we had was damage to the generation infrastructures, the power plants. The underground utility locations got flooded out. That was really the bulk of the power loss, not so much telephone poles being snapped and wires being down.

The exercises you spoke of prior, what were they prompted by?

We do all kinds of catastrophe planning: blizzards, flooding, hurricanes, and cyberattacks. Things that we know can happen in our state by where we are located geographically. So we have a planning cycle and an exercise cycle to test the state’s response to all of those kinds of significant events.

Do you think the State was better off because of this planning?

Yes. I think that drove a lot of decisions to start developing a State supported shelter program, to develop a stockpile of food and blankets, and agencies had a better idea of things they needed to do. State agencies understood that certain regulations we have in place might have to be waived during this kind of a disaster, such as where you bring debris, and if you bring heavy trucks into the state. There are certain bridges that they’re not allowed on, and you need like a waiver to allow them over the bridge for emergency purposes. And waiving tolls. We had a severe fuel shortage, so we had to have [the Department of Environmental Protection] make some waivers to the types of fuel that could be burned in automobiles and diesel engines in our state to accommodate the kind of fuel we had still left behind. I think the Governor, to his credit, saved the state a lot of problems with the odd-even fuel days.

Do you think the Governor’s response was good?

The Governor’s response was fabulous in terms of getting the message out to the people, letting them know what was gonna happen, and letting the people know where to go when they needed help. He also was great in working with FEMA and setting up the FEMA disaster recovery center. Understandingly it takes a long time to process all of the insurance claims and all that so things drag out a little bit longer. But the Governor, in terms of decision making, he and the Cabinet were working non-stop for weeks after this event, making all kinds of decisions to get the State back up and running as soon as possible.

Does this office still have any duties regarding Sandy?

Yes. We continue to coordinate with the State Office of Emergency Management. The have a planning bureau and we have a planning bureau. We work together on reinforcement plans and after-action reports, looking at gaps that may have been identified, and fixing those gaps. So we still have a major planning effort with them and we are still the lead on the Private Sector Desk. For example, if we want to get information from all of the utilities in the state, we’re the ones we can bring that to the table with the Board of Public Utilities. We’re not involved in the day-to-day recovery activities. That’s the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding. They lead that effort along with the Recovery Bureau at the State Office of Emergency Management. So we’re not into that business, but we’re still in the business of preparing for the next thing that comes along.

If another storm like this comes again, will the State be fully ready?

State Government is as ready as we can be. Like I said, we can’t stop the storm, we can’t stop the surge, and we can’t stop the damage. State Government is better prepared to respond because they have now the experience of going through it once. The current Cabinet is in place now and they know exactly what they have to do, based on the last storm. I think citizens are prepared now as well, because now they understand that a surge is not a Hurricane Party.

In the old days, when there was a Hurricane coming, people would have Hurricane Parties. They won’t evacuate, because the hurricane is wind and some waves coming. It’s not a big deal. But now, if we report that the storm is bringing a ten foot surge, people know what that means and they will evacuate. They will get out of the way, and there will be less potential for loss of life. Hurricanes were always classified by wind speeds. Sandy was a hurricane as it was coming up the coast, but it downgraded to a tropical cyclone when it got to our State because the wind wasn’t there. But when it was out in the ocean, it was a hurricane. So a hurricane’s a hurricane, that’s not going to change. When we talk, people need to understand that a tropical storm with a surge is just as dangerous as a hurricane.

I also think we’d recover faster. The Governor has put a lot of protocols in place requiring utilities to be better prepared, and to respond quicker to get power up and running. He put a lot of mechanisms in place. The Governor has a generator program for gas stations. If you recall, some gas stations had gasoline, but no power to pump it. In turn the Governor instituted an emergency generator program so that we can bring gas stations up online quicker. Many things happened since Sandy that will make us recover much quicker, after that storm.

To wrap up, is there any story you want people to know about the work your office did?

Under severely trying circumstances, all the agencies came to the table. I can’t really reinforce the leadership of the Governor on this issue, leading his Cabinet, making those decisions, and communicating with local politicians. On a daily basis, he would make statewide conference calls, to understand what their needs were. The compassion that he had for the people who were impacted by the storm, that’s the legacy. State government works. The State government gets together no matter what the circumstances and they figure it out, they’re prepared number one, but for those things that come out, that we hadn’t even thought about, that there’s enough intellectual flexibility there to meet those demands, all kinds of things that we never even thought about, yet, these folks can think out of box and come to good decisions.

Interviewed by Kenneth Rubin
Edited by Kenneth Rubin
Hamilton, New Jersey
Recorded April 7, 2015