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Irene's Lesson in Bernardsville: You're On Your Own

A year after hurricane, police chief and mayor talk about a concentrated effort to build emergency preparedness on local level.

When Bernardsville Police Chief Kevin Valentine approached the Borough Council after last summer's Hurricane Irene seeking funds for improved emergency preparedness, his request was about to be backed up by Mother Nature — who demonstrated her wallop with the October snowstorm, the second natural disaster in two months.

Both times, there were trees down, prolonged power outages of a week or more, impassable roads and pockets of homes made inaccessible. What made Bernardsville's lack of electricity even more of a disruption is that two-thirds of the borough's homes are served by private wells — and rely on electric pumps to tap into those water sources, as Valentine pointed out.

Valentine said that the August hurricane prepared the borough's Office of Emergency Management for the snowstorm only in that the responders had just had recent practice with a natural disaster. But he said that personnel and resources were strained to the limit both times — with police and rescue workers forced to deal with such issues as having the police radio system powered via an undersized and overworked generator.

But the real story, the chief said, is how much has changed since then. The council in 2012 allocated an unprecedented $233,000 for emergency preparedness and response on a local level, with about $150,000 to $180,000 of that amount going directly for equipment and systems to handle emergencies on a local level.

"We have come miles and miles from where we were," Valentine said. "But we still have miles to go."

Part of what remains to be done is to persuade residents and local volunteers to learn the lesson that he said became obvious to the borough's Office of Emergency Management, run through the police department in Bernardsville.

What those in charge in the borough learned during both emergencies, Valentine said, is that Bernardsville — at the far northern edge of Somerset County, with a small population, and not near any major infrastructure or essential operations on a larger scale — is pretty much low priority when a regional disaster strikes, according to the chief.

As a result, Valentine said, Bernardsville may be waiting quite a while if it waits for outside help in dealing with emergencies. The power company tends to restore electricity to major population centers first, he said, and Somerset County during the hurricane was tied up with even more crucial flooding in areas in the central county, including Somerville.

Mayor praises local emergency responders

Bernardsville mayor Lee Honecker added on Thursday that he feels the chief's assessment is "spot-on." He noted, "During both Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, our local responders...police, fire, rescue...made the borough proud. Everyone did their part and more."

Following the storms, the borough studied where the response had been deficient and filled in the gaps by obtaining necessary equipment and providing necessary training, Honecker said. The planning also included working with the Red Cross and the Somerset Hills Board of Education to establish a regional shelter at Bernards Hills School if and when needed, the mayor said.

Valentine said that he feels prolonged power outages are likely to continue in the future, and the borough must prepare for taking care of its own needs, and residents, for days on end. Honecker said he agrees with that assessment.

During the past year, Valentine said he and his office have taken numerous steps to acquire equipment and train personnel to prepare for emergencies, as well as putting in place ways of better communicating with residents.

For example, he said:

  • The borough police department has purchased a $35,000 four-wheel drive pick-up truck that can be used to transport emergency equipment, including road barricades, traffic cones, a lift to move heavy items such as generators and more.
  • A Polaris ATV can navigate off-road into remote properties, even when roads are blocked, he said. While the borough can remove fallen trees, police or other rescue personnel must wait for JCP&L to handle downed power lines, he noted. The ATV, at a cost of $14,000, can transport injured persons, he said. It was on site at last June's Bernards High graduation, packed with ice and standing by in case anyone experienced problems due to that evening's excessive heat. The borough's firefighters and rescue squad members are expected to receive training in its use, Valentine said.
  • The borough is developing a local radio station to disseminate information when needed, Valentine said. Although the borough has abandoned Nixle, he said that residents can still be contacted with emergency messages via phone calls, texts and/or email alerts. He said that alert system can be narrowed down to one small area of the borough if only a limited area is affected.
  • A new electronic message board can post crucial information as well as more routine messages.
  • As last fall, the borough has a water distribution plan in place for those who need it.
  • Larger, more reliable generators have been purchased for the Office of Emergency Management and emergency responders, he said.
  • Volunteers, including staff at the Bernardsville Public Library, have been trained to respond during emergency situations. The also serve as a "reception area" to distribute information and to guide residents to a shelter if necessary, Valentine said. Following that training, the library served as a "cooling center" during this summer's hottest days, and it was a place to go for residents evacuated from their homes when a SWAT team was called in after an Anderson Hill Road man allegedly barricaded himeself in his home.

Setting up such systems is labor intensive, and has become a major part of his job, Valentine said. He said the borough still is seeking volunteers to help train as emergency responders or provide help in other ways, even by taking care of animals whose owners have gone to a shelter where pets aren't permitted.

Residents also must prepare to be self-sufficient

But even emergency responders only can do so much, and Valentine said residents should prepare their own households for how to weather a storm or other disasters, including potentially lengthy power outages.

First and foremost, he said that residents should have on hand enough water, essential medications, non-perishable foods and an emergency kit with such items as flashlights to last for at least 72 hours. Information on emergency preparedness for households is on the Ready.gov website, he said.

During that time, he said, "We are telling people they have to be self-sufficient."

Fortunately, Valentine said last year's power outages motivated many residents to go out and purchase generators to power their wells and other household necessities. Such generators should be properly and professionally installed, he said.

For those who rely on electricity for medical equipment — and Valentine said last year emergency responders were forced to bring generators to households in need of a source of power for such lifelines as oxygen machines — the best course of action is to evacuate and go someplace where power and medical care can be provided even in an emergency.

Those with compromised immune systems should keep on hand purified water sources that may not be available when regular drinking water is handed out, the chief said.

Despite some inherent vulnerability in depending on private wells, such sources of water might become an important resource if for some reason there ever is a problem with the public water supply — and individual wells might provide an alternative water source, he said.

Honecker added on Thursday he feels that all residents, as individuals, should be prepared for an emergency to happen at any time. "When I was a law student living in Vermont, I remember the locals always being amused by us "flatlanders" stocking-up at the supermarket the day before a storm, whereas they were already prepared and had their supplies in hand," he noted.

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