National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 N.J. counties face tough questions, long road after Sandy

By Charlie Ban



Like most other New Jersey residents, Monmouth County Freeholder Director John Curley spent Hurricane Sandy huddled in his house, hoping for the best.

When he emerged, he was relieved to learn nobody in his county had died in the storm. But as he surveyed the damage, it sunk in just how powerless he was.

“When people come up to you as if you have some godlike ability to correct it all with the snap of the finger ...” he said as his voice trailed off. “That’s just heartbreaking. Kids are freezing, older people have dirt smeared on their faces, digging what’s left of their homes out.”

Photos courtesy of Morris County, N.J.

The Morris County Courthouse lost a 40-foot-by-70-foot section of its copper roof.

The scene replays as counties assess Sandy’s impact across the state. Officials are trying to assess damage to their infrastructures and figure out how much they’ll be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They’re adjusting to the sudden increase in operating expenses, which was unexpected for pretty much all of them.

Emergency management personnel and first responders are searching for their third and fourth winds and they try to bring the state back to working order.

John Donnadio, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said the storm couldn’t have come at a worse time, given the presidential election  and the varying temperatures.

 “Right now, we have more questions than answers,” he said. “We don’t know what’s reimbursable through FEMA, and we don’t know the overall impact on our economy.”

Donnadio pointed out that some communities were wiped out completely, which will transform some counties’ real estate base.

“It will revolutionize some counties’ economic development plans,” he said.

William “Hank” Lyon, a Morris County freeholder, helps keep an eye on Sandy’s effects in the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

A few weeks after Sandy hit and disrupted power to 92 percent of Monmouth County, life is starting to get back to normal. For as many as a few hundred county residents, though, normal may soon become living in Fort Monmouth, a military installation closed in 2011 that was returned to use for long-term housing for displaced New Jerseyians.

More than 700 Monmouth County residents had been staying in county shelters, though Curley said he expects many of those people would move in with family members. He’s not sure if his county will even retain its approximately 630,000 residents.

“We really don’t even know the number of people who have been displaced, some go on to the live permanently somewhere else, some may come back,” he said.

Donnadio feels one of the paramount issues for many affected counties will be emergency management plans with respect to human services, particularly housing.

“Our counties are going to need a long-term plan for shelter operations and related expenses,” he said. “People are coming to us to house them, but at some point our counties are going to run out of money.”

Curley toured Monmouth County in a pickup truck that took him places his sedan never would have reached. The sight of the borough of Union Beach shocked him and left him reaching for ways to describe the devastation.

“I’m not sure if it looked like Hiroshima or a snowstorm on the moon,” he said, describing sand blown every which way over houseless foundations and scattered wreckage. Ghost towns, eerily scored by the sound of wind as if whipped through a forest of plastic bags still hanging inside a dry cleaner’s with broken windows.

Sandbags remained on the doorstep of a house and door, both of which had been washed away. At the very least, Curley knew the sandbags didn’t budge.

A month too late to be of help preparing for Sandy, the New Jersey state association had planned an emergency management preparedness summit for December.

As the state moves ahead and rebuilds, Donnadio said a common interest from counties has been to improve their relationships with utility companies. Power company PSEG lost service for 1.9 million of 2.2 million customers in New Jersey, which rankled many and caused complications as counties prepared for the election.

The storm caused damage to countless county buildings — two courthouses in particular. Morris County’s courthouse, listed on the national and state registers of historic places, lost a 40-foot-by-70-foot section of its copper roof, among other roofs damaged in the storm. Glass domes on Passaic County’s courthouse and county administration buildings were also damaged

Though plenty of humans were affected by the storm, animals also had to deal with the disruption. When Cape May County’s zoo lost power, fear spread that the World of Birds exhibit would be at risk. County Communications Director Lenora Boninfante said none of the animals were hurt in the storm, all were moved inside and cared for by zookeepers, and the damage to the zoo was limited to downed trees.