ATLANTIC CITY — Space shortages in local shelters during Hurricane Irene left some of Atlantic City’s most vulnerable residents bouncing among as many as five different sites during the three-day evacuation.
City officials want to make sure that won’t happen again and are considering making their own shelter arrangements with mainland facilities in the future.
Atlantic City officials such as Mayor Lorenzo Langford want to see improved sheltering strategies during future emergencies and better plans for communication between authorities and residents.
“We were successful in our mission: to save lives and minimize loss of life,” Langford said. “But we feel Atlantic City residents may not heed the warning the next time around to the extent they did this time … so we should have a plan in place to deal with that.”
City and county officials intend to examine how to improve planning and execution for such emergencies.
But first, Atlantic County wants to finish dealing with flooding west of the barrier islands, county director of emergency management Vince Jones said Wednesday.
“We have people who are still displaced, people who are without power, and we’re coming up on five or six days. People’s homes were destroyed. We lost roads and bridges,” Jones said Wednesday. “We’re still actively involved in the storm, so we haven’t had a chance to sit down and critique this thing.”
South Jersey’s coastal towns were under their first full evacuation order on record Aug. 26 to 28, with inland flooding still problematic days after Irene dumped rain across the region.
Atlantic County residents who had to leave town Friday found out the night before through automated phone alerts, with the Atlantic City Office of Emergency Management leaving similar messages on its answering machine. Those messages missed people without phones, Langford said.
“While that might have been the best we had at the time, going forward we definitely think we could do better job letting Atlantic City residents know what to expect and how to protect themselves,” Langford said.
During the evacuation, two Atlantic County shelters with a combined capacity of 950 were open to residents — St. Augustine Prep in Buena Vista Township and Roland Rogers School in Galloway Township. A third, 150-person site at Buena Regional Middle School was designated a “shelter of last resort” for unexpectedly evacuated residents or those who decided at the last minute they didn’t want to ride out the storm, Jones said.
That combined 1,100-person capacity was less than 15 percent of the nearly 8,000 Hurricane Irene evacuees from Atlantic City alone. Some of the evacuated residents went to shelters at Rowan University, in Trenton and elsewhere once Atlantic County sites ran out of space last weekend.
City officials hope to find mainland facilities to address that shortfall as close to the city as possible, city Office of Emergency Management Director Tom Foley said.
But the shelter must meet Red Cross criteria, Jones said — the shelters can not be located on barrier islands or in flood-prone areas.
City officials also haven’t come up with cost estimates for establishing their own shelter arrangements — that’s going to be part of the analysis, Deputy police Chief Ernest Jubilee said.
“This whole operation was very, very successful,” Foley said. “We just want our residents to have the least inconvenience possible, and we anticipate talking with (Jones) and need to come up with solutions.”
Part of that will address miscommunication among public agencies, which seemed to cause conflicting information to go out to South Jersey residents about how and when to evacuate.
Atlantic County had numerous communication issues. Before noon Friday, county officials said access would be blocked to Absecon and Brigantine islands at 2 p.m. But just before the blockade was scheduled to take effect, the time was changed to 6 p.m. due to an order from the Governor's Office, county spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said Friday.
And during a news conference broadcast on live TV at noon Saturday — hours before the storm hit — County Executive Dennis Levinson said shuttle buses in Atlantic City would stop running at 1 p.m., no exceptions. But at a 2 p.m. press conference, Gov. Chris Christie said that 10 additional NJ Transit buses were sent back into the city to continue coaxing residents from their homes.
In addition to national and regional media outlets, emergency management officials used automated phone alerts to inform people about evacuation plans Thursday night. Agency Twitter accounts and Facebook pages started giving information Friday evening, but some of those messages conflicted with officials’ statements, too.
“There will come time when we discuss lessons learned,” Jones said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had to issue a full-scale evacuation order — while we have plans in place, we have no benchmark.”
Staff writers Michael Miller and Sarah Watson contributed to this report.
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