Jim Eberwine, 64, spent his career as a National Weather Service meteorologist until he retired in 2009. The next year, he became the volunteer emergency management coordinator in his hometown, Absecon.
Q: During Hurricane Sandy, how long were you in this room (at the police station) … without going home?
A: Probably several days. … What made it difficult is that Shore Road (near his home), that road floods. So I got out and came here to the police station. I spent most of my time here. My wife was with our daughter … in Galloway Township.
I think that for four of five days later, the mayor (and police officials) all went around to different properties that were affected and got a catalog of the damage … and that was especially helpful. Because the quicker you can gather that information … and ship it off to the county and FEMA, the quicker you get your funds for anything that you had to put out during the storm.
The major problem the public has with evacuations, they think that when you ask them to evacuate, they’re either going to die from the storm or their home is going to be destroyed. You may see that, but the primary reason to evacuate is, if you don’t evacuate, and your road gets flooded, and you get chest pains or you start to get sick, you can’t get any trucks in there to get them. The water’s too deep.
The other thing is, if you had a fire — we saw that in a lot of communities up north, where they were flooded to the point that fires broke out, and the fire company couldn’t get to them.
So when these evacuations are given, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to die if you don’t go or your home is going to be destroyed, it just means that services that you usually depend on in your community may not be available for six or eight or 10 hours.
Once the storm goes by, they want to rush back in and get home, which is natural. (But) you have to make sure that it’s safe, the gas lines haven’t been broken and the electric lines are OK.
Q: Did Irene cost you, though, in the sense that people didn’t take the warnings as seriously the next time?
A: We heard that. But we were lucky with Irene that it came at a certain time. It was supposed to be at one point a Category 2, even though it was paralleling the coast. If that came ashore, that would have been devastating.
Q: You were quoted as saying that Cape May County missed a major disaster in Irene by a few hours. Explain that.
A: Well, one month to the day prior to Irene coming, Cape May (County) held a two-day exercise … called “Escape the Cape.” It was attended by 250 people, everybody from Homeland Security all the way down to the local municipality. And the scenario was a Category 1 (hurricane) coming up into Cape May County and turning into Sea Isle.
Well, it was in July, and at that time, the population swells to over 1 million, or 1.2 million. … And when it was all said and done, (a county emergency official) went (around) and asked each community, “Would you have evacuated or not evacuated?” And from everything we tabulated in that exercise, if there had been no evacuation, there would have been over 4,000 people killed — or more. You would have had 250,000 vehicles from people visiting the shore either flooded from fresh water from the rains, or tidal.
Now, that was from a Category 1 making landfall. Now we go fast-forward to Irene — you have the identical track coming up. So when the briefings were done for Cape May and Atlantic counties for Irene, a lot of those people had been at that exercise, and they’re thinking, “If we don’t do something with Irene — especially if the Hurricane Center is saying now that it could be a (Category) 2 — then if we don’t get these people out of there, it’s going to be serious.”
(Irene) came at the wrong time, which was good. But when it got past Ocean County, up to Sandy Hook, it came at high tide, so they had a 10-foot tide … a near record tide in Sandy Hook.
Now, we get Sandy. … One of the benefits of Sandy is that we didn’t have a million people to deal with. This was in October — they were all home. So you just had the residents to deal with, and I think that’s why the evacuation went out for just the barrier islands, and not for up to (Route) 9.
We, believe it or not, were on the good side of the storm. If you look at the way the coastline of Jersey is, every tide gauge from, say, Atlantic City down to Cape May, Sandy either fell below what the record was … or just equaled it. It didn’t do too much as far as surpassing the records we had from (1992) and the ’62 storm and things like that. As you went north, into that area where you have the 90-degree coastline and the water being all forced in, they had record tides. Sandy Hook had 14.4 (feet) — broke their record, which was 10 feet, set in Irene. So that was significant.
Q: So 40 percent higher than the record?
A: Right. That’s significant. Especially when you have so much wave action. I think the buoy off New York recorded a 32-foot wave.
Now, when you have these places like Ortley Beach, Mantoloking and Point Pleasant, where, say, you didn’t have a good dune structure, now the tide is up from the surge, and on top of that, you get the wave action. … But when I looked at all the homes up and down the coast, it was absolutely a positive that 95 percent of the damage was surge on all these homes, starting in Brigantine. … And then as you went farther north, it was surge and then wave action on top of that. So the emphasis, I think, in the future will be put on the way the storm comes across the coast — 90-degree angle, the northeast quadrant is by far the worst. And everything north of, say, Brigantine was in the northeast quadrant.
Q: Please tell us a little about your career in weather.
A: I worked for the National Weather Service for 38 years, up in Mount Holly. The position was general forecaster but … my additional duties were hurricane program manager and marine-weather program manager. What that encompassed was going to the Jersey Shore or the Delaware coast and anyone who was in a hurricane-prone area, teaching preparedness not only to local citizens but also to first responders and anybody that had anything to do with hurricane recovery.
I’ve been very fortunate, because early on, I met Neil Frank, who was then director of the National Hurricane Center, and he explained to me how vulnerable this area is if we were to have a hurricane approach much like Sandy did. So the preparedness from our office in Mount Holly and also the concern from the National Hurricane Center has always been for this type of storm.
And then when I retired and I’m on the other side of emergency management, where I’m relying on the Weather Service to send me information, I now realize how valuable it was to get that information to (local officials). And not only give them the information, but call them up and explain it to them. That’s primary. I mean, you can send out all the information you want to … fire, EMS, police and public works people, but not all of them understand it. So when you call them up and explain it to them and concentrate on their area, that’s exactly what they were looking for.
But serving as coordinator, a lot of people in New Jersey remember me when I worked at the … National Weather Service and doing the hurricane work, so when we had Irene in 2011, I was reaching people in Cape May and talking to people in Atlantic County. And then when we had Sandy, I was talking to people in different parts of the coast. Even though I’m sitting here watching the storm come up here, I was giving them an idea of what I thought was going to happen with Sandy, depending on where it came in, what would be the hottest items they would have to deal with.
Q: Tell me a little about Absecon. How long have you lived here?
A: I came down to South Jersey in 1978 to work at the National Weather Service office in the Tech Center (the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township; the office later moved to Mount Holly). … And then I moved to Absecon in 1997, and I’ve been here ever since.
Absecon — when people think of Absecon, they see this small community, 8,500 people roughly, 7.5 square miles. … But when you look at who we are next to, Atlantic City, one of the main thoroughfares, Route 30, goes through Absecon to Atlantic City. So over the years, we’ve had as many as 38 million visitors coming to the Jersey Shore, and a lot of them passing through Absecon. So that puts a burden on police and fire sometimes, you get more accidents and things.
It’s not a full-time position, but there are certain things, like with Sandy, that happened Oct. 29, and we’ve been working on the paperwork up until yesterday.
We’ve had five (disaster) delcarations since I’ve been here as the coordinator. We had one snowstorm, we had one heavy rain event with flooding, we’ve had two hurricanes and then we had the derecho in June of last year. And to many people in the county, that was a major disaster — that was far worse than Sandy. Because I think … Atlantic (City) Electric at one time in the derecho had 204,000 people without power. And I think under the same umbrella, in Sandy, (the figure) was about 180,000 or 190,000.
I always, over my career, stressed the significance of being selfish with your disaster. You don’t want to share a disaster with nobody, and June 30 (the derecho) was the best example. Because Atlantic County took the brunt of that windstorm, and parts of Cumberland and Salem and southern Ocean. But mostly Atlantic County, and that’s one county out of 21, so the other 20 were rushing to give aid to Atlantic County, whereas Sandy affected everyone from Virginia up to New England.
And when you have a major city like New York involved, and Philly involved, and Washington involved, sometimes you’re put on the back burner as far as recovery.
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