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Nobody had ever seen anything like this

Steven Henry

Steven Henry has worked for the Toms River Police Department for over 25 years. At the time of Hurricane Sandy, he served as the Incident Commander for all operations related to the storm. In this narrative, Steven recalls his experiences as the hurricane was taking place as well as in its immediate aftermath.


What did you do during the storm?

I was the incident commander of all operations regarding the storm for the first seventy two hours.

Were you especially worried about Sandy?

No, I wasn’t. I think because of a certain tolerance level, when you’ve been doing emergency services for almost thirty years now, you’re just like “Eh, sure, here it comes.” I put some people in harm’s way in the beginning that I regret, and I would never do it again. Some people said that this is different, this is bad.

Did you prepare much beforehand?

Well, the storm, of course we had a lot of planning and meetings. The meetings were with our state callers. We have several donut towns: Lavallette, the borough of Seaside Heights, a section of Berkeley Township. We had a lot of meetings with them: when we were going to close the islands, when we were going to open up an evacuation center in the county, the citizens’ emergency response teams. You know, a ton of planning meetings, but still, no one was prepared. Nobody living had ever seen anything like this.

Could you tell us about your experiences as the hurricane was taking place?

We activated our emergency operations center, our communications center headquarters ended up being just our area command. We had a CNN news team, believe it or not, about to interview our chief when a tree came down and blew apart his car. The calls that were starting to come in told us that something catastrophic had happened way outside our area. We had to evacuate over 95% of the barrier islands so of course we got the 9-1-1 calls of those people who stayed behind. It was very reminiscent of Katrina because I spent two weeks down there. People were telling us that there were twenty foot swells and, you know, there aren’t supposed to be twenty foot swells. [1]When the Mantoloking Inlet opened, all of a sudden you have millions of gallons of water here in five minutes and that’s when everything got affected, which we never expected and that’s when we started having a lot of issues. We had over one thousand jobs come in that night- over 3,200 phone calls. All of a sudden, your water vehicles become a rescue resource that is exhausted very quickly, so we had to improvise a little bit. Two or three miles inland, we’re having rescues. An elderly couple was trapped in a minivan, we couldn’t get to them, so we had to talk to them and send in police officers. It was just a lot of people thinking on their feet. State resource allocations overloaded very quickly. You were pretty much on your own for the first thirty hours. We didn’t lose any lives-no fatalities.

We had structure fires going on and stuff in Mantoloking. Interviewee shows pictures of devastation on cell phone That’s what we found on 35 North when we hit it. This was when we touched down over there that day. When we first sent a swift water team for search and rescue in, the first thing they came across was a gentleman who was a diabetic who was stranded in his truck. The day after the storm though, was probably one of the nicest days we’ve ever had in October. Standing out there though…have you guys ever seen the movie Planet of the Apes? Not the remake, the real one. The actor walks out onto the beach and he sees the Statue of Liberty. That’s exactly what we thought it was, it was like Armageddon and the end of the world. It was insane, it really was.[2] When you realize what water can do, it really is devastating. You get six inches of water in your house and your house is shot. Even saltwater, like the Seaside fires. People turn their pool heaters on in June and there’s a fire. We had a lot of our fire department members who were homeless by the end of this. They didn’t blink an eye though, they were at work at the end of the day.

What were your first impressions after the storm hit?

We never expected this. It’s kind of weird- we were in such a zone for weeks. In the first 48 hours, life doesn’t stop, people are still stupid. We had a drunk driving arrest in the middle of the storm, we had a domestic violence arrest in the middle of the storm, and we had to pull out a SWAT operation. A guy was drinking all day and he had an assault rifle and a patrolman sees him and he flees back into his house, so now we have a barrier with a guy with an assault rifle. So on top of that, you’re grabbing out SWAT guys from everything else they’re doing. The guy got into that “Katrina Mode” and he was doing stuff completely stupid. He thought he was going to be overrun by looters because he was drunk and he was stupid. One thing you find out from all this though, is the quality of the people you hire and we cannot be more impressed with the quality of our people. People here, at this school, did a phenomenal job and it got no existence from anybody. We grabbed a school bus and blocked off intersections with them, you know, thinking on your feet. The guy with the best connections wins.

What was the hardest part about rebuilding; what posed the most trouble?

FEMA rules. It’s the unknown bureaucracy. I’m a government employee but the amount of what they’ve done to this town and to the people to try and circumvent the red tape and the grants and the loans has been such an uphill battle. The first check isn’t cut until almost six months afterwards. I can’t imagine if you’re a senior citizen, or if, you know, you just have a high school education, or if you don’t even have a computer. It’s very disheartening. There needs to be a much better system for these people when disasters hit now that they’re becoming more commonplace. You get past the local bureaucracy, then you get to the state bureaucracy, then you get to the federal bureaucracy. So if you’re just a regular Tom, Dick, and Harry, you’ve got some real problems.

What organizations have you been involved with?

Well, there are a lot of grassroots organizations going around. From my perspective, we’re working with the state police a lot, emergency management divisions, that’s pretty much it. The state mainly deals with the financial people. I learned a lot more about budgetary issues through this.

Do you have any stories you would like to share?

Something I want to do someday-just get everyone in the room, some beers, and just compare nightmares. That’s something I don’t hear enough about and I know they’re out there- the individual stories who go and make a rescue and then go and make five hundred rescues. Who do you think the first people who show up at an evacuation center are? Usually your problem people. Megan’s Law offenders, over one hundred…we had many children here, what do you do with the Megan’s Law offenders? We had a whole section with animals and pets. It was nice being able to work with a mayor who can be so supportive. He took a lot of heat, too. You have to take care of yourself, too. I got hospitalized, I think day thirty six. You’re so busy and it finally catches up with you.

Seeing those lines at the gas stations, the electricity was still out, everything was still dark; it’s like watching one of those Armageddon movies. People were all really good but after a while their tolerances went down and people started drinking because there was nothing else to do- domestic violence went up, people got sick of each other.

I remember I had to run the lights in my unmarked police every day just to go to meetings. It was the only way to get through traffic. I think at this point we should finally have the ability to put generators at each traffic light because if we don’t, we have to put a police officer at each one and that’s a huge resource. You run out of resources really quickly. We didn’t get a whole lot from the Red Cross, they didn’t step up at all. We had to do a whole lot more on the county level than we should have. That’s where being politically correct hurts us sometimes.

How has the community changed since the storm?

Well see that’s the thing; we’re still in the game here. There’s a street called Hooper Avenue. If you’re west of Hooper Avenue, then you probably thought the storm was over after about two weeks. The rest of these people are still dealing with it today. Debris removal, demolition, FEMA money, all kinds of stuff. We have a weekly meeting concerning security issues, grant money, and plenty of other unknowns at this time. We’re still getting through it and we’ll still be in it in the next five years.

What should the community learn from this? What have they learned?

Here’s the tough part about that-we’re still in it. Preparedness, of course, I think we’re a little more engaged. The “crying wolf” thing was a real big thing. I don’t think they did learn a lot, to be honest with you, because we didn’t have any deaths. People really don’t get it unless…I mean, we might lose some homes, but next time, people might get injured. If you’re going to be self-reliant, don’t think for one second that people with dark sunglasses will jump out of the back of armored vehicles saying, “We’re from the federal government, here to help.” You’re on your own. For the first seventy-two hours, you’re on your own, and then people will show up and then, it’s amazing how people do show up.

[1] Interviewee draws picture of a map and points out the Mantoloking Inlet

[2] Steven Henry shows video of a house that moved 7/10ths of a mile

Interviewed by Alex Borg and Chris Gugliemo
Edited by Stephanie Pappas
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013