by Elizabeth Murphy, Consultant, Post-Sandy Recovery Coordination, Council of New Jersey Grantmakers
On May 20, the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers (CNJG) offered an educational Site Visit Bus Tour for funders in-state and around the region to learn from a variety of experts who are involved with the recovery and rebuilding efforts throughout New Jersey. More than 40 philanthropic leaders participated in this day-long program that focused on the northern New Jersey communities of Newark, Essex County; Moonachie, Bergen County; and Hoboken, Hudson County, and was modeled on the Council’s very successful Coastal Communities Tour in February. In addition to hearing from a wide range of local officials, Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) Leaders, urban planners and environmental experts, the site visit also included a tour of a PSEG electrical substation power plant that was flooded during the storm.
Council President Nina Stack kicked off our morning Briefing Session, which was held at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of NJ’s headquarters in Newark. CNJG member and Executive Director of the Horizon Foundation for NJ Jonathan Pearson offered opening remarks, followed by a host of guest speakers including Laura Olsen, a member of President’ Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force; Glenn Bowles, FEMA Floodplain Specialist; Lt. Joseph Geleta, Head of the Emergency Management Unit, NJ State Police; Paul Toscarelli, Substation Manager, PSEG Metropolitan Division Service Territory; and Joseph Della Fave, Executive Director, Ironbound Community Corporation.
We were reminded of the very sobering statistics regarding Sandy’s impact on New Jersey: preceding the storm, more than 116,000 New Jerseyans were under mandatory evacuation. Immediately following the storm, more than 2.7 million households and businesses were without power, as well as over 1,000 schools. 127 shelters were open at the height of the storm’s sheltering effort with an estimated 7,000 residents. There were nearly 600 full or partial road closures. New Jersey’s regional mass transit operations and infrastructure were hard hit, causing system-wide disruptions of NJ Transit and PATH service, including impacts to Hudson River/NYC crossings. All New Jersey schools were closed for two days, and hundreds more remained closed beyond that. More than 8,000 jobs were lost in November — mostly in our leisure and hospitality industries. Nearly 1,400 vessels were either sunken or abandoned in our waterways during Sandy. Through early January, the State of New Jersey and its contractors removed over 2.5 million cubic yards of debris. In the past 6 months, more than 261,000 households, across all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, have registered for FEMA assistance. The estimated damage to housing in NJ is $4.458 billion.
We heard powerful testimonies about the serious challenges facing several communities. Mr. Della Fave spoke about the impact of Sandy on the Ironbound section of Newark. He described the serious environmental concerns regarding the storm water that surged through various industrial plants (the Benjamin Moore plant and the Convanta Incinerator), as well as the Dioxin Superfund Site, before surging into residential homes and local businesses.
We also learned that many residents who are in serious need of assistance have not come forward for help because they are undocumented and/or feel that other people are worse off and they don’t want to “take help” from others who may need it more than they do. This was a recurring theme throughout our Site Visit Tour — Janet Sharma, Executive Director of the Bergen County Volunteer Center and Long Term Recovery Group, echoed this statement, as did Greg Strid (Hudson County LTRG chair) and Carly Ringer (the City of Hoboken’s Sandy Coordinator).
As we travelled to the Bergen County town of Moonachie, in the heart of the Meadowlands, Ms. Sharma explained that many residents of this working-class community were rescued from their homes in the middle of the night as the storm waters rose to more than six feet in most places. In Moonachie, we were greeted by the Honorable Dennis Vaccaro, Mayor of Moonachie, and the Honorable Mauro Raguseo, Mayor of Little Ferry, and heard reports from Sean Closkey and Andrew Rachlin of The Reinvestment Fund as well as from Dr. Francisco Artigas, a scientist with the Meadowlands Conservation Trust. Dr. Artigas stated that parts of the Meadowlands experienced a 9.5-foot storm surge and water remained above seven feet for more than six hours. He also said that although the ocean is 30 miles away from this part of New Jersey, salinity, turbidity and oxygen level testing of the water from the storm surge revealed that it was, in fact, ocean water.
In Hoboken, we were met by Stephen Marks, Assistant Administrator for the City of Hoboken; Hoboken Sandy Coordinator Carly Ringer; and Scott Delea, Chair of the Hoboken Relief Fund. Again, we learned about issues specific to this community — for example, more than 1,700 garden apartments were damaged, and these dwellings are not eligible for FEMA aid because they are considered basements. We also heard that the City has announced a partnership with the North Hudson Sewerage Authority to build Hoboken’s second wet weather flood pump in order to further alleviate Hoboken’s 200-year flooding problem. To improve the city’s resiliency to power outages, Hoboken is entering into a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories and PSE&G to design an energy-resilient “smart grid.” And the City has applied for $44 million in Hazard Mitigation funding for a system of flood barriers, berms and gates at the north and south to protect it from future tidal surges.
This Site Visit Bus Tour highlighted the vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and illuminated the weaknesses within the fabric of our society. We all must meet the challenge of addressing issues ranging from health and safety, communications and response systems, energy and power, sanitation and water treatment, housing and mental health services, coastal and urban planning, and environmental justice, along with a host of additional issues.
While national disasters, whether natural or man-made, have gravely impacted thousands of towns and cities across this nation, the spirit of Americans is unbreakable and we have seen countless examples of sacrifice, ingenuity and innovation at work in the response to disasters. In New Jersey, we are seeing our philanthropic sector rise to the call for service and leadership in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. While there has been progress on a number of fronts, we are still at the beginning of a long, statewide recovery.
Elizabeth Murphy is a consultant working with the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Currently, she coordinates the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers’ Post-Sandy Recovery Efforts, and leads Creative New Jersey, a cross-sector creativity initiative launched by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.