Sandy huffed and puffed and left almost everyone’s lives in turmoil

Main photo by Kim Pezzolla; Bottom photos by Ron Leir
TOP: Hundreds line up in hopes of getting gas for cars and generators during the storm’s aftermath at a Kearny Exxon station located on Kearny and Oakwood avenues. Bottom left: Sandy soaked this First Street homeowner’s property in Harrison. Bottom right: A section of Warren Street in Harrison suffered flooding.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

Once upon a time, the Dodgers had a dandy southpaw named Sandy who blew away opposing hitters with a tremendous fastball and a wicked curve.

Well, a not so dandy Hurricane Sandy has come and gone but not without leaving a calling card that reminded us not to fool with Mother Nature.

It also reminded us how we tend to take for granted electricity to power heating systems and cell phones, batteries for flashlights and gas for our cars.

And, of course, that most precious commodity – water.

As a 14th-floor resident of a Jersey City highrise still without power – and having spent one night with friends in Essex County and another with maybe 100 others at the Jersey City Armory – I’m one of Sandy’s victims.

But certainly I’m a lot more fortunate that many others – like those folks in Breezy Point, Queens, N.Y., who lost their homes – some 90 of them – in a devastating fire that raked their community.

Not to mention those closer to home – in the communities featured in The Observer – who’ve gone through their own personal ordeals.

For those who’ve been hiding under the covers, away on vacation or in self-denial, Tony Mondaro, director of the Harrison Weather Center, tells us that locally, winds from Sandy as it made landfall last Monday night gusted between 65 to 75 mph in the West Hudson region and, in Harrison itself, reached 68 mph.

Although forecasters classified Sandy as a Category 1 storm, Mondaro says it should really be upgraded to Category 3 – as far as this area is concerned – if you factor in wind, pressure and flooding.

Coming as it did, at the time of the high moon, Sandy accounted for a merging of the Passaic and Hackensack rivers, triggering a “sevento 10-foot surge where they met,” according to Mondaro.

That was pretty obvious to East Newark storm troopers, Mayor Joseph Smith and Police Chief Ken Sheehan, as they watched in amazement as the Passaic crested on the night of Oct. 29.

Photos by Ron Leir
Harrison homeowner’s basement ceiling collapsed due to Sandy’s wrath. RIGHT: Harrison Police Chief Derek Kearns (l.) and OEM/ Fire Director Harold Stahl in “storm central” headquarters in Harrison.

“I’m 72,” Smith said, “and I’ve never seen anything like this since I’m living here.” Observed Sheehan: “It was like you were watching a movie.”

“Passaic Avenue flooded and the water started to come into Reynolds Avenue, where one side of the street is East Newark and the other Harrison,” Smith said. “Those new houses have slanted driveways and the water started flowing into their basements.” Sheehan said the borough’s fire volunteers used a donated rowboat to help evacuate some 25 adults and children from six homes, including two elderly people, one of whom was treated by EMS before being transported to a nearby relative. Virtually everybody else got back into their homes.

Fire volunteers also deployed their boat in response to a distress call “about a man stranded under (Rt.) 280 but that turned out to be a bogus call,” the chief said. Firefighters cut off a section of Harrison Supply Co.’s tin roof that the storm had loosened and posed a potential menace if a gust caused it to be airborne.

Patrol cars rode around the tiny borough with their lights during the night, “from Monday to 3 a.m. (this past) Friday,” when power was restored, Sheehan said. “People were very happy about that, since we had no street lights on.”

Across the border in Harrison, first responders were also busy, as the town’s weary OEM Coordinator/Fire Director Harold Stahl recalled last Wednesday.

“The Passaic River came over its banks at 6 p.m., just prior to the lights going out,” Stahl said. And it didn’t take long for local storm water drains to back up, spilling water along Warren, Sussex and Bergen streets, off First Street, quickly filling residents’ basements and first floors.

Similarly distressed were residents along Hamilton Street, Reynolds Avenue and Cleveland Avenue.

Given the speed and volume of water, Stahl said “the decision was made to get those people out,” so with the aid of a boat on loan from the Hudson County Office of Emergency Management and with the “first time” use of a front end loader with bucket, police and fire employees deployed to rescue more than 60 residents during the storm’s first six hours, Stahl said.

Photos courtesy Laurie Perrone

Among those victimized was Becky Kipilla, whose house near the corner of First and Warren streets was inundated with water.

“It’s my second year in a row,” Kipilla lamented. “We got new boilers, heaters after (Hurricane) Irene. That was a nightmare but this is 10 times worse.”

She invited a reporter to check out her first floor waterlogged rug, along with much of her remaining furniture – excluding a couch and odds and ends tossed out on the sidewalk – and her soaked basement, with its partly fallen in ceiling, filled with debris.

During the rush to flee the flooding house, Kipilla recalled, “my 90-year-old mother had to be put in her wheelchair and carried down by the block.” An elderly woman tenant living upstairs also had to be helped out, she said.

For now, Kipilla will be staying with her brother in Hasbrouck Heights.

First Street neighbors Rogelio and Josefa Gomez, who came from their native Spain 45 years ago to settle in Harrison, were also rescued by boat, according to grandson David Garcia.

“My grandfather has a heart condition and diabetes so he and my grandmother had just enough time to grab his medicines and a change of clothes before they got out,” Garcia said.

They also got the one, two punch from Irene and Sandy. “After Irene, they remodeled their basement and now, their new couches, new furniture is all gone,” Garcia said. “The basement ceiling collapsed. All the paint is coming off the walls. The fridge is floating.”

Garcia, who lives on Bergen Street with seven other family members, also ended up evacuating but luckily they can return and, for now, take in his grandparents.

Stephanie Esteban, who lives on Warren Street with her parents and two sisters, remembered being freaked out by the sight of water rushing into basement windows at around 7 p.m. “just as it was getting dark.” A boat manned by firefighters appeared in their back yard and she climbed through a window, bruising her leg in the process, to safety.

“My uncle is going to try to come from New York to get us,” she said.

It was touch and go for a while as rescuers rowed to the rescue of a security guard stuck on the roof of building on Cape May Road, Stahl said. The rescuers “were just about in tidal waters” when they managed to grab the guard, he said.

Harrison Avenue resident Ellen Castignone heard a crashing noise inside her second floor apartment at around 7:30 p.m. when Sandy hit, after her lights went out, and she discovered that the wind had apparently shattered one of her bathroom windows.

Undaunted, Castignone said she grabbed her camera and went outside to check on a friend down the block and to snap pictures of the havoc caused by Sandy and people’s reactions to the storm. Harrison opened its senior center and high school as emergency shelters to accommodate more than 200 residents at the peak of the storm, Stahl estimated.

In Kearny, Mayor Alberto Santos said the storm flooded PSE&G substations in Newark and Jersey City that feed power to the town so utility personnel were kept busy bailing out the excess water which also rushed into the basements of “dozens” of homes east of Schuyler Avenue and along East Midland Avenue and Hoyt Street, prompting a handful of evacuations with boats borrowed from the Board of Education. Santos said that flooding also washed out the police/fire precinct on Hackensack Avenue that the town was leasing from a private owner.

“All our equipment and furniture is lost,” he said.

South Kearny was inundated by a tidal surge that rose eight to 10 feet, estimated Fire Chief Steven Dyl, and that hindered firefighters responding to a potentially dangerous toxic plume that arose in the early morning hours on Oct. 30 from Aldeen Leeds, a manufacturer of swimming pool chemicals on Jacobus Avenue.

Dyl said that storm water apparently mixed with chlorine, one of the chemicals used by the plant, causing it to smolder and triggering a release of the chlorine gas into the air.

“It was a very strong chlorine odor – but probably 100 times worse than being exposed to, say, an open container of Chlorox,” Dyl said.

Once firefighters got to the site at around 3:30 a.m., since nobody was working at the plant at the time, “it took a while to determine which building had the actual fire,” Dyl said.

Warnings were broadcast by the county Office of Emergency Management advising residents in the area of the prevailing winds to keep their windows closed and to stay indoors.

Eventually, Dyl said, responders included Kearny Fire and Police Departments, HazMat teams from Jersey City, Bayonne and State Police, the state Dept. of Environmental Protection, Kearny Health Dept. and Hudson Regional Health Commission (HRHC).

“We evacuated the area between Central Avenue and the Passaic River and from River Terminal to the CSX rail yards,” Dyl said.

Angela DeQuina, HRHC deputy director, said that once the source of the smoldering was pinpointed and HazMat personnel were able to get inside the building, the chlorine reagent was “secured in watertight” containers and the situation was declared under control by that afternoon. A DEP spokesman said that air monitoring conducted both inside the plant and along the Belleville Turnpike (Rt. 7) on Oct. 30 concluded that no toxins were being released and the situation “didn’t pose a threat to the public.” He said the chemical plant hired a contractor to separate the compromised area from the “non-damaged materials.”

Also in South Kearny, Dyl said firefighters responded to several fires, some involving tractor-trailers on North Hackensack Avenue and on Central Avenue, and two fires at River Terminal. There was also a two-alarm fire at a Tappan Street residence and a one-alarm fire on Davis Avenue.

Storm gusts ripped section of roof from Town Hall on Kearny Avenue so the town immediately called in Bower & Co. Siding & Roofing, a local contractor, for emergency repairs and, within a few days of the mishap, the municipal building – hooked up to a generator – was reopened to the public.

Like other communities in the immediate area, Kearny public schools remained closed in the aftermath of Sandy with windows on one side of the high school shattered and solar panels and some roof fabric ripped from Franklin Elementary School, reported Mark Bruscino, school district operations director.

“We’re waiting for the power to come back at the high school and at Lincoln (Elementary) School,” Bruscino said. “All other schools have power.”

Sandy’s handiwork caused traffic tie-ups at the Rt. 7 bridge connecting North Arlington and Belleville. Wind damage to the former Dutch Reformed Church that blew off some roof shingles, compromised the steeple and left the cross tilting prompted public safety officials to detour vehicles coming on and off the bridge into Belleville, onto Main Street.

Belleville showed itself ahead of the curve in reacting to late-developing runs on gasoline by convening an emergency session of its governing body, whose members voted Nov. 1 – before Gov. Chris Christie issued his executive order on Nov. 3 – to put into effect an “odd-even” system for buying gas at the pump in the township. This law, which took effect this past Monday, applies both to motorists fueling their vehicles and to folks with gas cannisters.

The mayor and Township Council also voted to implement a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew – except for going to work, attending school or going to a doctor. Offenders could spend up to 90 days in jail or being fined as much as $2,000 or doing up to 90 days of community service.

Township Manager Kevin Esposito said that with “gas being a hot commodity,” Belleville “has had tremendous traffic, not only from within Belleville but from the region, and we end up with long gas lines that go for several miles. That wrecks havoc on our streets and we need a police presence to control it.”

So, this past Friday, township officials met with seven local gas station owners to pitch their proposal which, according to Esposito, the owners willingly accepted.

“They want to conduct their business in a safe fashion,” he said.

During the storm – and after – Esposito said police, fire and public works employees were “out in full force” sheltering people evacuated from flooded areas in the Silver Lake and Valley sections and dealing with downed power lines and toppled trees.

Initially, the township used the high school as an emergency shelter, but when the school lost power, switched to the Knights of Columbus for a couple of nights and then returned to the high school.

“Luckily for us, Clara Maass (Medical Center) didn’t lose power,” Esposito noted.

There was a fire triggered by live wires on the roof of a Columbus Avenue house and a window at School 3 blown out, Esposito said.

“Our first responders worked effortlessly, like a well-oiled machine,” he said.

For those in Belleville still without power, Esposito said the most current PSE&G prediction was it would be back “by Nov. 9.”

In Nutley, about five percent of the township’s residents remain without electricity, according to Mayor Alphonso Petracco and Public Affairs Commissioner Steven Rogers. That represents “less than 100” homeowners, Petracco said.

Residents who’ve been left in cold apartments or homes are invited to stay at the Public Affairs offices on Chestnut Street, the mayor said. Residents on blocks where power has been restored, but whose electrical service has been disconnected from a street power source, are urged to call the township’s code enforcement office at (973) 284-4950 to find out how to get reconnected, Petracco said.

Petracco said the township is deferring – for now – its annual municipal Halloween celebration due to storm-related activities.

The mayor said the township will soon be organizing a “meatball challenge” fundraising event to benefit Jersey Shore victims of Sandy.

“Stay tuned for details,” he said.

North Arlington volunteers evacuated residents from flooded out River Road residents by boat.

Councilman Joseph Bianchi said that “a few of our apartment buildings” and “one of our dining establishments” have been “red-tagged” as being in need of municipal inspections due to flood conditions.

“Our OEM (Office of Emergency Management) Coordinator, Police Chief Louis Ghione, did a marvelous job coordinating all our departments in responding to Sandy,” Bianchi said.

The borough sheltered “about 20” residents temporarily in its senior citizen center in the aftermath of the storm. “We gave them coffee and blankets,” Bianchi said. “I believe we were the first town back up with Comcast (cable TV).”

North Arlington got help from Kearny and Belleville in refueling its fire and police vehicles, he said. And PSE&G worked closely with borough workers in attempting to restore normalcy, he added.

“We’re heading in the right direction in our post-Sandy recovery,” Bianchi said.

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