OCEAN CITY — Frank Donato asked a crowd of about 100 people in the Ocean City Tabernacle to raise their hands if they evacuated a year ago as Hurricane Irene bore down on the coast.
Most hands went up. Then he asked who didn’t evacuate. A couple people put their hands up.
“OK, that’s why the police are here,” said Donato, Ocean City’s emergency management coordinator, pointing them out in the crowd as if he was staging a sting operation.
It was a joke that everyone laughed at, but the rest of the two-hour presentation on emergency preparedness drove home the point that people should take seriously the threat of any significant storm, especially on a barrier island.
The theme of the event was “A time to remember, a time to prepare,” this year being the 50-year anniversary of the March 1962 storm that many believe to be the most destructive that has ever hit the South Jersey coastline.
With that in mind, Paul Anselm, president of the Ocean City Historical Museum, made a presentation showing pictures of that historic storm’s destruction, some of them recently acquired and never shown before in public.
“It’s sobering, isn’t it? When you think of what Mother Nature can do to us, it’s positively sobering,” he said.
Donato presented the good news, which is that radar technology and modern building has made living along the coast much safer.
He also noted that there have been higher tidal surges in Ocean City than the 1962 storm, but they were after the region made improvements and learned from that storm, so the damage was not nearly as bad.
After his presentation, a panel of well-known local meteorologists told stories of their own experiences and answered questions from the crowd.
NBC-TV40 meteorologist Dan Skeldon moderated, while Steven Strauss of CBS3, Jim Eberwine of the National Weather Service and Tom Lamaine, a renowned meteorologist who retired from CBS and KYW in Philadelphia also participated.
Lamaine noted several times that while technology and planning has improved dramatically, flooding and damage from storms has only gotten steadily worse as development has paved over soil that would otherwise absorb water and more buildings have gone up that can be destroyed.
He also warned the crowd not to act as if they are experts simply because of how much information is available today online and elsewhere. He said that people sometimes get a false sense of security because of predictions that can be easily fallible.
Questions from the audience touched on tornados in South Jersey, the recent derecho storm that left hundreds of thousands without power and whether there is any way to fully stop coastal flooding.
Donato answered that last one with a question of his own.
“Short of raising the entire island?” he said.
The experts said there is reason to feel safer than people were back in 1962, and Skeldon went as far as saying that while another storm could have the intensity of that northeaster, it would likely not cause the same level of damage again.
But they made sure to mention that you simply never know what’s possible.
“You know what the forecast was two days before the ’62 storm?” Eberwine said toward the end. “Chance of showers.”
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