With Hurricane Sandy expected to wind its way up the Atlantic coast this weekend and whip through northern New Jersey late Monday into Tuesday, local officials are preparing for the worst and asking residents to do the same.
"What I’ve instructed my department heads and supervisors to plan for is a Hurricane Irene, October snowstorm combination," Fair Lawn borough manager Tom Metzler said. "That’s the model that we’re using, knowing full well that it could be worse than that."
The most recent forecasts for northern New Jersey call for three to six inches of rain, at bursts as heavy as one to two inches per hour, and up to 50 mile per hour winds.
Metzler said Friday morning that he anticipates the storm will trigger flooding comparable to Irene and bring down even more trees and power lines than last October's freak snowstorm.
While municipal officials in Fair Lawn can't stop the impending winds or prevent the rivers from rising, they do have last year's experience dealing with Irene to draw on while making emergency arrangements.
"I think as a result of the last go round, [residents] are going to take it a little more serious, prepare for it a little better, just as we are," Metzler said. "We’re trying to take those things where people were critical of the last go round and try to address them so we can serve the public better."
Opening the lines of communication
From Monday at 9 a.m. forward, Fair Lawn will coordinate its hurricane response through a 24-hour emergency operations center, located in the basement of borough hall.
Emergency management coordinator Ira Marks and his deputies will work 12-hour shifts overseeing the EOC, surrounded by a team of trained Community Emergency Response Team volunteers who will answer non-emergency calls from residents around the clock.
"The EOC manager is constantly establishing what the priority is at the given time," said Metzler, who explained that all caller information will be entered into a database. "When [the Shade Tree Department] calls in and says, 'What are your priorities?' it’s the Shade Tree supervisor and the EOC manager who are saying, 'These are the things that I think need to be taken care of,' so that we’re using these resources efficiently."
The 24-hour EOC model, which was not used during Irene, benefits both the caller and the borough, Marks said.
For the caller, speaking to a real person offers confirmation and relief that his problems are being heard and handled in a timely fashion. For the borough, being able to respond to and compile a list of all overnight callers and their needs allows the EOC manager to prepare an itinerary in advance so morning crews can get started on the day's most urgent tasks immediately upon arriving.
In an effort to take the burden off of the police communications center, the borough is directing residents to place all non-emergency calls (i.e. tree or power line down, flooded basement) to the EOC line -- 201-794-5343 -- which will be manned by up to eight operators during the heart of the storm. If an emergency does arise, however, dial 911.
Earlier alert notifications
The borough has also made an effort to notify residents of the impending storm sooner this year. The Office of Emergency Managment issued a borough-wide phone alert Friday afternoon imploring residents to prepare for severe flooding and prolonged power outages, and to stock up on food, water and fuel in advance of Hurricane Sandy's romp through town.
The borough will issue an additional phone alert to residents in flood prone areas only -- including residents whose homes flooded for the first time ever during Irene -- if river levels reach a certain "trigger point," Metzler said. That message will inform recipients that flooding is imminent and those wishing to evacuate their homes should do so soon, while roads are still open.
Wagaraw Road residents alone will receive "mandatory" evacuation orders once the trigger point is reached, Metzler said, because performing rescues in that area is extremely dangerous for emergency responders.
“We cannot make anyone leave, but what we are going to do is we are going to make them provide us with information of their next of kin, we’re going to have them sign a document that they were given the opportunity and that they understand we’re not coming back for them," Metzler said. "That generally will get those that need to go, to go.”
Because the Federal Emergency Management Agency's updated sheltering model recommends the use of super shelters over smaller, independent shelters, the borough will direct residents who evacuate their homes to seek shelter at Bergen Community College, rather than the community center, Metzler said.
During the storm, residents with internet or television access can get emergency updates via the borough's website, the Fair Lawn Police Department's Facebook and Twitter feeds, and the local public access channel (Channel 77 for Cablevision subscribers or Channel 37 for Verizon FiOs subscribers).
In advance of the storm, Metzler said employees have topped off water storage tanks, filled fuel tanks on borough vehicles, tested emergency generators, increased sewer flow through the south siphon and emptied the flood prone Parks Department building at Memorial Park.
The borough's volunteer rescue squad, fire department and ambulance corps are briefed and ready to respond, if needed.
The borough has canceled garbage collection and minibus service on Monday, and recycling pick-up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. An alternate pick-up for these items will not be scheduled.