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Just picking up the pieces

John Barcus

John Barcus has been a police officer with the Mantoloking Police Department for twenty years. Before his career as a police officer, John served in the First Gulf War with the Marine Corps. During Superstorm Sandy, John played a vital role in keeping order and saving lives in Mantoloking. A year later, he reflects on the harrowing experiences he lived through during the storm, and the lasting effects that still hamper the Mantoloking Police Department’s ability to protect and serve.

In the days before Sandy how did you prepare?

As far as work goes there was a lot of preparing going on over there. We evacuated town, gave out ordinance notices, and went around door to door. Advised everyone that after the wind would reach a certain speed we would not be here anymore to respond. We prepared headquarters as best as we could we moved all of our vehicles west of town out to a place called TowBoat U.S..

The town was empty. We had to maintain a patrol cause you know this is a vulnerable time for the town obviously. Every criminal in the world comes in knowing there is nobody around.

Barcus 1The chief had gone home sick, so he had left me in charge of the whole police department there. So everyone kept looking at me like what are we going to do. Well the first thing were going to do is get everything off the ground. We took all our computer equipment and moved it up as high as we could on top of the desks and everything cause we were expecting water [but] we weren’t expecting that much water. So we kept preparing and preparing. About three o’clock in the afternoon the sergeant called me and told me we were just hit by a wave on route 35 while patrolling and we need to leave town now. So then we made command decision to leave town at that point. So there was no police service in Mantoloking as of three o’clock on Monday afternoon. We moved out to TowBoat U.S., which is about a mile west of Mantoloking in Brick town and coincidently around the corner from my house. Hurricanes in the past, we hunker down into one spot that’s close by and if anything major comes in we try to respond as best as we can. Usually wind up eating a lot of food, waiting till the winds died down go back in and clean everything up. Not really much else we can do. It’s a small department, only seven officers. We don’t have a lot of resources.

Can you tell me a bit about your experiences during the hurricane as you were at work?

So we sat down and we saw about 4:30-5 [on the morning of the storm] Brick town was sending two fire companies and several police vehicles east of us. So we looked at each other and were like, “Well, I guess we better go out and help them because that’s Mantoloking.” So we got in are cars and trucks and we went down to the bridge and the lieutenant from Brick town stopped us and said you can’t get over there. So I was like, “What do you mean we can’t get over there? That’s Mantoloking, that’s where we work! We’re going over there.” He’s like, “John you can’t make it.” I say, “Well Donny I’m going. We have no choice.” So I went up over the Mantoloking Bridge and that’s when it hit us we knew we were in a lot of trouble at that point. Winds were about ninety miles an hour at this point. I could see waves coming from the ocean on the northside of the bridge going from the ocean right into the bay. You know five to six foot waves. There was a wall of debris on the east side of the bridge seven to eight feet tall, which were remains of a house that officer that tried to stop us told us about had collapsed and broke down at the base of the bridge. It was just a wall of debris being pushed west up to the bridge by the waves. To the south side of the bridge there’s a house that was right at the base of the bridge; we watched that house come off its foundation, flow out into water, and crash into the bridge while we were on it. Mantoloking has been washed out, a house just hit the bridge, and we need to leave the area as quickly as possible.

There were fifteen people that stayed in town they did not heed the warning of evacuation. So the goal at this point was figure out how to get back into town to rescue those fifteen people. We went back to Mantoloking.

Barcus 5The water was getting pretty high on Mantoloking road at this point. We heard cries for help out on the street and saw these people crying for help. There were four vehicles filled with people. The cars were floating so we had to rescue them. We swam out to those vehicles got them out of their cars. The ages were infants all the way up to eighty nine year old woman, their dogs to luggage you name it was all floating away. We had to actually pull the cars to the point where it hit something so we could get em Wound up being about twenty two people all together. I introduced myself to everybody and told them we would get them to safety as soon as we could. I called for help to dispatch and they told us they couldn’t get to us, they had no resources to find high ground. The water kept coming up and up about this point here we had about three inches of water coming in the building in TowBoat U.S. now. So the owner of TowBoat U.S. said, “If you’re gonna get em out you gotta go now. Cause the rate this water’s rising we’re not going to make it.”

So we had an old army truck available to us. It was built with a lift kit in the back so we could lift people in and make it real easy, [but] that wasn’t functioning. So we had to get a ladder [to] get everybody up in there. I’m the only military guy in the police department, so I was the only one who knew how to drive the truck. Myself and detective Faris were in the front of the truck. Head lights weren’t working so we had to use detective Faris’s flashlight as a head light out the window of the truck. And we drove all those people out of the parking lot into the water and then west up Mantoloking road till we got to the first firehouse about two miles west of where we were at. We unloaded them all and then realized now we had to go back in. So we went back in. The water was deeper. We had to go around floating cars and debris. We pulled into the parking lot [at TowBoat U.S., and] the battery compartment got compromised by the salt water going down the road. The truck died and we were stuck there. At that point there we went up into the attic, cleared out all their Christmas ornaments and everything, inflated some air mattresses, and we laid down there till about 4:30 in the morning.

Several calls kept coming in, texts from other homeowners in town, you know, “Help us,” you know, “Get us out.” We had no equipment available. We had logged them the best we could but we just couldn’t get back into town, at that point the water was just coming and coming. We couldn’t get back in. A very disheartening feeling. You go through your whole career wanting to help people, you just can’t. It wasn’t easy.

So [we] kinda hunkered down. Tried to get a better game plan. One patrolman had made it out. The patrolman, a young single guy living by himself, calls saying, “I’m ready. Where do you need me to go?” I told him, “Find us a way out. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care what you have to commandeer, but get us a boat a truck or something that can get in to get all of us out.” He finds two county road department frontend loaders out by the fire company that we took the people to. Tells em where we were, at guides them into us, and we were rescued by those frontend loaders. We actually got into the basket. That the only way we could get out.

At that point there we were pretty beat. We were a police department that couldn’t function properly. At this point we had no base of operations. We’d lost everything. We needed to recharge our radios. So they took us over to Point Pleasant Borough Police Department. We met up with the Borough police. I spoke to a lieutenant from the state police, gave him the names and locations of the fifteen people who were in town and said, “You know you need to get your boats in there. You gotta help us out.” He came back in about a half an hour later and said, “I need your people cause we don’t know where were going, we’re used to the bay not the streets.” So three of my officers were assigned to go with them. They rescued seventy people that day out of the second floors of their houses and off their porches and what not. The state police boats were able to drive right up and down the streets unobstructed the water was so deep. This was Tuesday morning.

Now myself, the chief of Bay Head Police, and one of the sergeants from Bay Head police got in a frontend loader and we drove east into Bay Head. My goal was to traverse south back into Mantoloking to do a damage assessment. The damage was so bad at Bay Head, the debris was so bad. I couldn’t get back into Mantoloking on Tuesday. It was really bad. Went back to Point Borough cause there was no power. The gas leaks were so bad we discontinued rescue and evaluation operations. About 7:00 we sent everybody home to get a good night sleep to report back in at seven in the morning on Wednesday. Chief returned to work Wednesday and he took command again. Barcus 4That’s when the water had gone down enough. So we all raced back over to TowBoat U.S., reorganized, set up in teams of two, went down Mantoloking road, [and] went over the bridge. Our public works superintendent brought one of the Bobcat bulldozers home and he pushed a hole through the debris and we were able to get in and we got down to the headquarters. That’s when we saw how bad thing were. We split the officers up into two man teams and we foot patrolled for four days. We kicked a lot of people out. There was a lot of people who had gotten in there either by kayak or boat or something. A lot of looting going on. Nothing that we could prove by the time homeowners got back in. They couldn’t tell if the storm had taken it or some else had taken it.

So there was a lot of old school law enforcement going on. We had to escort a lot of people out. Anything they had on them we would just tell ‘em to leave it, pick it up later on. No way to document it [since] our computer system was down [so] we had you know guys writing stuff on pads, nowhere to put it. So we cleared the town. Basically, we were like the marines going in. Everybody was carrying either a riffle or a shotgun plus their side arm. It’s not a big area but it’s a big area to walk around on foot.

We rescued all the fifteen people that stayed. One old couple was up on the second floor having cereal when we got to them so. The evacuation plan, everything, did work so we didn’t lose anyone, nobody died. Pretty emotional seeing everybody again. We had all been working there for a while. We knew all these people. They were the old timers that just were stubborn and stuck around or firemen or OEM people who figured they were invincible because you know they were firemen or OEM people. Got everybody accounted for and then started picking up the pieces. So it’s been like that now for a year now. Just picking up the pieces.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the police department faced in the days after the storm?

Security and operations. We had to reestablish and we knew everything we’ve done in the past wasn’t going to work after the storm. A normal shift would encompass one maybe two officers depending on the day. That was physically impossible to maintain that kind of patrol status [during Sandy]. So we had to hire extra part-time officers because we need to keep at least three on shift at all times. Because the amount of looting, the amount of destroyed homes in the town, the amount of damaged areas that are just dangerous for people to be around now because now Mantoloking has become a tourist attraction. So everybody is coming down to area to see, oh look, what happen[ed] because of the storm. I have an officer [in] the north end, the middle, and the south end. That’s one guy a section. The trespasser issues are out of control. The copper thefts are through the roof. People are breaking into houses that have already been broken into and taking all the copper out of them. All those issues had to be reevaluated after the storm. How we maintain a proper patrol, protect the people in town, and the property. So that had to be reevaluated.

On top of that right after the storm we had to setup check points because we had a pass system to get into town. If you weren’t a resident with a pass you weren’t getting in. So we had all the people that were coming down from the tourism now being told to turn around and to get out. This started arguments at the check points, poorly conduct arrests and assaults on officers.

Then you had the insurance adjusters come in: by far the worst people in the world. Because insurance companies, they’re looking to lose a lot of money, they were doing their job to say as much as they could which screwed everybody on the other end of this. So they would send their adjusters in to evaluate these homes and see how victims of the storm would get their money. But they had no passes. So we weren’t just letting anybody walk into town because we had a looting issue going on. So they would start arguments there. So the checkpoints had to be manned by the National Guard because we didn’t have the man-power to accomplish normal patrol plus security. So the National Guard manned it for a while till January 6th. Then the New Jersey state police took over managing our checkpoints. The National Guard’s mission ended and they pulled out.

Normally on a shift we didn’t have to feed a guy we would go to 7/11 or Wawa to get something to eat. Now we have to setup a kitchen and lucky enough we had a volunteer that helped us out. Fed us everyday up until August 1st.

Vehicle maintenance went through the roof. Every day a car pulled out once we were able to move cars out. We were getting flat tires. So our person that does are vehicle maintenance here in Point Pleasant Beach is friendly with all the officers. If it wasn’t for that guy and his staff our vehicles would have never been able to be maintained. He was oil changing them, changing tires, anything that went wrong with it because we had a small fleet at that. He had to make sure they were constantly running. Maintaining our own schedule. Officers at night after the gas leaks and stuff were actually doing a twenty four hour service. We had to make sure it was safe for our officers at night. We had a trooper that came to help us out who was assigned to a checkpoint. We asked him periodically to go from his checkpoint to walk up in between the houses on the beach. So to make sure there was nobody on the beach. So he went through doing what he was told to do and he broke his ankle walking around a house and we had to get him out of here, out of town.

Barcus 6Beach patrol. We haven’t had a beach patrol in fifteen years. We had to totally reestablish beach patrol because now the ocean front where the beach was became a whole new separate road way for us. Everybody’s coming out for the tourism and there standing there in front of houses that don’t even have dunes in front of them anymore at this point looking into a house that’s got all their property stuff sitting right there. All they have to do is take it. Well there’s two problems with that. One, you’re breaking every law in the world when they do it and [two,] the house could come down on top of them at any given time. So now we have to add a whole beach front patrol. We have ATV and T-Rex vehicles and stuff like that, that we had to buy that FEMA helped us out with. We had to maintain that patrol. The bay side, we kept getting reports of people kayaking into a dilapidated house on the bay side. So now we had to maintain a boat patrol which we had but our boat wasn’t really equipped for winter patrol. So the state police came in with seven boats a day and they go along Bay Head all the way to Seaside Heights making sure that no one was coming across. The National Guard had observation posts set up [in] the west side. So say that I have a boat moving here the state police would move to intercept them to make sure they weren’t coming into town. So everything changed. Our entire law enforcement operations changed the day of the storm. I can’t think of one aspect that hasn’t changed to be honest with you. I’m probably not even giving enough. There’s a lot. Everything changed. Everything changed.

How long did it take to get the police department back up and running again?

We’re actually still working out of a trailer FEMA gave us. The building itself is physically there. They just decided the other day to knock it down. Cause that got three feet of water. But the building is like a hundred years old and it couldn’t sustain a lift. So they decided they would knock it down. We went from the day of the storm I want to say to November 20th operating out of the second floor of public works. Public works had to build a building that was hurricane three rated. We had no idea that it was going to survive. We just stayed there up in the second floor. They had power, they had radios, the generator was working when we got back and everything. So we had a place to operate out of, but it’s a small second floor to put police, fire, first aid, OEM, borough, county council, public. So we just kinda functioned around it. Parked the vehicles Barcus 3around it. Then they finally got us a fifth wheel trailer by November 20th. Which was also very small but comfortable. We made it a make shift police department as best as we could. But the server that I had saved, got that back running so we could do reports. We caught up on reports. We were in that probably till mid-January. Then OEM was able to acquire us a double wide trailer. They put it all together and then we modified it into a police department. We have a jail cell and a lobby and we’ve been working out of that ever since. But the next storm that comes in you know, we were afraid that was going to float away so we need to get a permanent building.

Did you manage to get most of your equipment and vehicles out during the storm or did you end up losing a lot of that?

We got all the police department’s cars out. We knew we were going to get some water and regular cars just don’t make it in salt water. We anticipated that when we put them up in TowBoat U.S.. So up on top of the property they only got four or five inches. So a car was able to handle that we didn’t lose anything and the SUV are higher than that so there was no problem.

We lost an ATV and then all the other equipment like your cones and your barricades and all that stuff that we had. All our weapons cleaning stuff was outside in the garage and we didn’t even think about it, we were worried about a storm, not weapons cleaning. We lost all that was in the garage. We had brand-new lockers in the locker-room, all rusted out and destroyed, and quickly too. I was kind of amazed that mold settled in so quickly inside headquarters. Anything that was in it was condemned. All our evidence for all our cases destroyed. We lost it all. Our evidence closet just wasn’t big of enough. I moved stuff as high as I could but it’s a small closet. But you know you take pictures and show it and you won’t talk about till three or four days later. There is mold all over everything, everything, because we have bullet proof windows everywhere. There is nowhere to air it out. So it was hard you know we lost a lot of stuff but nothing major. I got a police server out, so we didn’t lose any data we didn’t lose anything reports. Some important stuff survived, some important stuff didn’t. We lost a lot of ammo, probably about fifteen thousand rounds. You know fifteen thousand bullets out the window [since] it was compromised with saltwater. And then we ran into the problem what do we do with it. We actually had to melt them down. I still have to make arrangements for that. A lot of those issue have come in the year like what do we do with this or how do we get this back. Yeah we don’t have an alkatest [breathalyzer] in town. We have to use another police department’s alkatest. So all these type of issues are coming up.

Point Pleasant Beach, we have a mutual aid agreement with them. If we arrest somebody we take ‘em up there to fingerprint them, process them, you know the whole nine yards because we just don’t have the facilities in Mantoloking. We have a holding cell. It’s [a] make shift room. We put three pieces of plywood around it, put a Plexiglas roof over it, and it’s got a chained fence in front of it. So we could hold somebody if we had to but it’s not state standard. So if somebody gets hurt in there they’ll be some liability issues.

What do you think that people can learn from this event going forward?

There’s a lot of lessons. Be prepared for anything. You may hear that one type of event is coming to your area but that one event can turn into anything at any given time. So something as small as changing your fire alarms over or like you do every time the time changes or keep yourself a disaster prepared box in the house. These are thing that normally not happen around here so people don’t really head to these warnings or take this advice. People should definitely take that advice because you never know what’s going to happen. If you’re told to leave, leave. Don’t put first responders in harm’s way because you didn’t want to go. Communication, make sure you have the ability to communicate with whoever you need to communicate with. It was hard for us working by ourselves just communicating with our families, let alone communicating with other entities on the work level. But make sure your line of communication stays up if you walk or drive to a place and get the information and bring it. Then try to keep everyone on the same page.

One big lesson we learned down here is that each individual town can’t operate independently. Case in point being the pass process. Every town had their own pass on the Barrier Islands. So from Bay Head to Sea Side Park you couldn’t go if you had a pass for this town and you didn’t have a pass for the next one. You couldn’t travel route 35 because there was National Guard units or state police units set up stopping everybody if you didn’t have a pass. That’s one huge lesson we learned down there. It would’ve made things much easier if they took a bigger police department like Brick town or Toms River took over the entire pass process and assigned it and had all resident go to them to get passes to the area, instead of a town thing an area thing. So you know that this is the affected area, you can’t get into that affected area, there is a wall around it and you need a pass to get through the wall. That probably would be a better way to go about this. Be prepared, that’s the big lesson.

Interviewed by Matthew Bender
Edited by Conor Reid
Toms River, New Jersey
Recorded November 2, 2013

Photos are courtesy of John Barcus