The evacuation of South Jersey in advance of Hurricane Irene was largely a successful operation, despite glitches over transportation and shelter and some people refusing to evacuate, emergency management officials said Monday.
"Given the aftermath, would we do it again?" Atlantic County Office of Emergency Preparedness Director Vince Jones said. "If faced with the same thing tomorrow, we would do the same thing tomorrow."
In Atlantic City, Office of Emergency Management director Tom Foley said that 98 percent of people were evacuated, though Governor Chris Christie's comments at a Saturday press conference specifically mentioning people in Atlantic City who refused to leave and promising to send buses did come as a surprise.
"I was taken aback at the governor's comments," Foley said. "But I appreciated his task force. People were refusing to leave all over the state, not just in Atlantic City, but he was concerned with Atlantic City only and I don't know why."
The "biggest glitch," Foley said, was with the buses used to evacuate residents. Jitneys and school buses from Safety and Integrity were supposed to be used as shuttles to take people to nearby points where they would then be taken to shelters by other buses - but because "NJ Transit was taxed to the limit," Foley said, many shuttles ended up taking people directly to shelters as far north as Warren and Mercer counties.
"That was a real burden on us," Foley said. "The shuttles were supposed to be a quick turnaround for us. If it takes four hours to come back, it's totally useless to us."
Another glitch, he said, was the "haphazard" return of evacuees. Residents were supposed to be returned to the elementary schools where they were first picked up, but instead most were just sent back to the Atlantic City Convention Center. In addition, many evacuees from shore towns from Brigantine to Wildwood ended up at the convention center as well.
"So we had to come up with a plan to get them to their homes," Foley said.
Foley said 700 homeless were evacuated, as well as the 1,600 living in public housing, the elderly and families who may be from other countries and not have places to go or even have a car.
"We never got information back on where these residents were located (or) exactly how many were in shelters. That has to be straightened out."
Foley did add that he believes there should be more shelters open in Atlantic County itself in future emergencies beyond the three open over the weekend.
"Especially with Cape May County having no shelters," he said. "They have to develop additional shelters in the area. It has to be done. Putting people on a bus for three hours just has to stop."
Jones said that opening new shelters is not as easy as it may seem.
"What we were faced with was how large the storm was. It stretched from the Atlantic to as far west as Pittsburgh, Pa." Jone said. At one point, we felt there may not even be a safe location for people given the wind. If they lose power? Do they have a generator? We may not have been able to open a shelter in the county."
Despite reports of many residents living east of Route 9 on the mainland areas choosing to not evacuate, Jones said the county would make the same decision to include those areas in the evacuation zone if a storm of similar size and predicted strength approached again.
Cape May County
In Cape May County - which had a mandatory evacuation of all residents - Emegency Management Director Frank McCall said that the county had not yet made a total assessment of its response to the hurricane, adding that the focus was still on recovery.
"I'd summarize it this way: last week we thought we had more than 800,000 people in the county," McCall said. That they managed to reduce the population to about 12,000 without any injury or loss of life is pretty impressive.
Seven nursing homes, seven senior citizen high-rises and all campgrounds were successfully evacuated, he said.
"When things begin to be looked at," McCall said, "I'd respectfully suggest there's going to be many things we will find that will deserve attention for improvement. In the very near future, we're going to fine-tooth comb the entire operation for any improvements that need to be made" - including, he said, the decision to evacuate the entire county."
"(With) only 12,000 remaining, I think others felt that was the right thing to do," he said. But we certainly want to understand why there were still people who stayed behind ... I hope we never have to do this again, but we want to address it and take the concerns of people who did not leave and take those into consideration."
Representatives from the Cumberland County Office of Emergency Management, who were dealing with emergency preparations for immediate river flooding Monday afternoon, did not return calls. County Spokeswoman Kim Wood had said that a meeting to assess the hurricane preparation had taken place earlier Monday afternoon.
Representatives from Ocean County Emergency Management did not return calls for comment.
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