Flood-worthy vehicles seem to be the item at the top of the list for Atlantic County public safety departments after Hurricane Sandy brought floods to the barrier islands.
With flood waters hitting record levels in some areas, several police and fire departments lost vehicles and were using 2½-ton military trucks — known as a "deuce and a half" — to get where they needed to go, including helping with late evacuations.
"We need high-water response vehicles," Brigantine Police Capt. Ray Cox said. "That's the one negative we had. We got to a point where we couldn't get to most of the areas on the island."
While towns are still assessing damage and are looking at what they learned from the storm, public safety leaders say things went well under the circumstances. Towns such as Brigantine and Ventnor brought in all their personnel to work, so everyone was available. Although, some things were difficult to plan for.
Water filled three of Atlantic City's fire stations and left Ventnor's main firehouse on New Haven Avenue without power for three days when the generator failed.
"We had to run some small generators we keep on the trucks just to keep the firehouse going and the portable radios charged," Fire Chief John Hazlett said. "It kept some essential lights on just so we could function."
With more than 1.5 feet of water inside, the firefighters were not only in the dark, but were cold and wet, he said, calling the room where the apparatus was kept "swamp-like." Boats they have were floating inside.
"That's something you can't plan for because you have the backup generator in case you lose power," Hazlett said of their safety net getting knocked out from under them.
The Brigantine Fire Department lost one of its engines while responding to a fire Oct. 29. Engine 2 stalled in the flood about a block from the fire on Lafayette Boulevard, acting Fire Chief Jim Holl said. Engine 1 made it there to find a car and house fully engulfed. Firefighters from the second engine waded through the flood waters to get there. Despite trouble finding the submerged fire hydrants, the fires were extinguished before they spread.
Holl said one resident told him it was like watching a Vietnam movie, but instead of guns over their heads, the firefighters and emergency medical technicians had firehoses.
Knowing salt water’s corrosive powers, Holl is fairly certain both engines will be a loss and already has the insurance adjusters looking into it. But, for now, the department has borrowed equipment, so there will be no issues in responding to emergencies in the interim.
Now, many are making sure they have what they need.
“It’s quite a task just cleaning up our equipment and going through the checklist to make sure everything’s here and accounted for,” Ventnor’s Hazlett said.
They lost a couple of ambulances. Atlantic City lost a couple of cars, although about 99 percent of the fleet was safe in the Convention Center, police Chief Ernest Jubilee said. Brigantine also lost a car, but the rest were parked on the second floor of the La Sammana Resort across from the station, which also donated rooms for Brigantine police officers and firefighters to rest between shifts.
But rest was rare, the chiefs agreed, commending the work their personnel did.
“The call volume was so high the first couple of days, there was no chance at all to rest,” Hazlett said. “It was an ‘all hands’ operation. We needed every single person and body we could stand.”
Flooding also cut off communication for some.
Ventnor police had problems when all lines — except 911 — went dead for several hours during the height of the storm, when the generators went out.
"It was just anything that could have gone wrong with phones and Internet all went wrong at the same time," police Chief Michael Miller said.
They are looking at a new location for certain equipment. Miller also credited administrative Sgt. Marc Franco, who he said was able to get things up and running before professional vendors could get in.
"Communication is an issue at every emergency," Atlantic City Fire Chief Dennis Brooks said. "It's something that's really tough to overcome."
But it went better than last year during Hurricane Irene, Jubilee said.
He said communication was also aided by the Emergency Operations Center set up at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, where Jubilee said all involved entities — including county and state — were at the table together for when critical decisions needed to be made.
Communication with residents was another problem. Especially when people, desperate to get back to their homes, kept calling for information on when the island would reopen.
Public safety leaders said they understood the concerns and frustration, but also had to make sure things were safe before people could come back.
"At one point, we were getting 500 calls an hour," Ventnor’s Miller said.
“The aftermath, I think we were able to handle really well,” he said, adding that the addition of sheriff’s officers and State Police helped in not having any instances of looting.
Miller also lauded the governor’s decision to impose a curfew.
“It was really a great mechanism to at least identify if it was just a homeowner who didn’t evacuate and have them return to their homes,” he said. “We were able to not have a bunch of people running around on the street.”
Jubilee said that went better in Atlantic City this time around as well.
"We had 12-hour shifts, so we had people on the street," he said. "We did it last year, and we kind of learned from that one."
In the end, departments did as well as they could, Atlantic City’s Brooks said: “You look at what you did right, look at what you did wrong and try to make things better.”
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