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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Superstorm Sandy: A Municipal Perspective

One Year Later, Officials from Devastated Jersey Shore
Community of Brick Share Transportation-Related Lessons

By Karl Vilacoba
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Brick Township at a Glance

Area: 32.3 square miles (25.7 land, 6.6 water)
Population: 75,072 (2010 Census)
Roadways: Over 400 lane miles
Frontage on water: 53 miles (#1 in New Jersey)

Following Superstorm Sandy, Brick, N.J., was a town divided. In what became one of the enduring images of the storm’s wrath, the Atlantic Ocean plowed through a three-block neighborhood to create a new inlet to the Barnegat Bay behind it. The breach occurred at the foot of the Mantoloking Bridge, the main access route from Brick’s mainland area to its thin but densely developed barrier island section. Route 35, the sole north-south artery running through the barrier island between the tourist destinations of Point Pleasant Beach and Seaside Heights, was buried beneath sand drifts that stood 10 feet high at points, as well as the wreckage of homes that were torn from their foundations by massive storm surges.

Barrier island breach

U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen

Superstorm Sandy formed a new inlet from the Atlantic Ocean to the Barnegat Bay

at the foot of the Mantoloking Bridge, which connects the Brick Township’s mainland

to the barrier island town of Mantoloking. This aerial view of the damage was taken

during a search and rescue mission by the New Jersey Army National Guard 1-150

Assault Helicopter Battalion on Oct. 30, 2012.

Like many Jersey Shore towns, Brick has long dug out from the debris, but still has much work to do picking up the pieces. The summer tourism slogan “Stronger than the Storm” has led to talk of rebuilding smarter than the storm. From a transportation perspective, Sandy provided what computer models could only guess at before—a hard look at what would happen if a worst case scenario storm hit the Shore. Now, township officials are using that information to ensure they’re better prepared if and when disaster strikes again. 

Even among the Shore towns, Brick is uniquely vulnerable to an extreme storm like Sandy. It has 53 miles of waterfront land (the most in New Jersey) including frontage on the Atlantic, the Barnegat Bay, the Metedeconk and Manasquan rivers, and countless lagoons and creeks that make the town a haven for boat owners. When the ocean overran the barrier island and pumped water into the bay through the new inlet, it forced the bay and its tributaries to rise like a bathtub and spill out into the mainland’s densely populated neighborhoods, causing some of the worst devastation suffered by any municipality. 

Mayor Stephen Acropolis was one of the many residents displaced by Sandy. As winter set in, Acropolis, his wife, daughter, son and two dogs lived on a boat docked on a lagoon behind his home while flood damage was repaired. The year since Sandy has allowed the mayor to return home and get back to the welcome mundanity of ordinary town business. “Sorry about that,” Mayor Acropolis said after taking a break to field a phone call from town hall. “He wanted to ask me about a photo shoot they want to do for Snooki in Brick,” he said with a laugh.

The year has also provided ample opportunity for reflection. InTransition spoke to the top emergency management officials from Brick, who provided a municipal perspective on some of the most important transportation lessons provided by Sandy.

Breach before and after

A “before” aerial image by Google and an “after” image captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration’s National Geodetic Survey following Sandy illustrate the devastation at the breach site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resilient Infrastructure

In 2006, Ocean County opened the new Mantoloking Bridge to replace a 1938 drawbridge that had become a bane to locals because of the traffic backups it caused with its long, slow openings. At the time, the $21.5 million contract was the largest single construction contract ever awarded by the county. The new structure was designed to accommodate traffic for a town that had grown by 60 times since its predecessor debuted. The bridge was bigger, stronger and taller—significant, because it would cut the number of openings necessary for passing boats from 6,000 to 2,000 per year.

When Sandy’s extreme water surges pummeled the bridge, officials had no fear for its survival, even as rumors swirled that it had been destroyed. Asked whether he thought the old bridge could have survived the storm, the mayor said bluntly, “No, it would not.” Acropolis said that speaks to the importance of having modern, resilient infrastructure in place in such vulnerable areas.

“I look at the Mantoloking Bridge and give a lot of credit to the guys who designed it, because it did what it was supposed to do—it held up,” said Acropolis, who served on President Obama’s Superstorm Sandy Rebuilding Task Force Advisory Board. “The roadway on the land gave way, but anything that was designed and built on these cement pillars stayed. If it weren’t for that breach we would have been able to drive over it the next day.”

Repaired breach area

Ed Murray

The repaired site of the breach at the intersection of

Mantoloking Road/Herbert Street and Route 35. Visible along

the highway is a new steel wall meant to protect the area from

future incursions.

Brick Police Chief Nils Bergquist said emergency responders attempted to cross the span on foot immediately after the storm had passed, but couldn’t for two and a half days because of the dangerous conditions at its base. In what the chief called a “monumental feat,” crews managed to clear a single-lane path to the breach area on Route 35 from the barrier island’s intersection with the mainland in Point Pleasant roughly 2 miles north and a bridge located 8 miles south in Seaside Heights. Front end loaders on opposite sides of the breach moved tons of sand into the waters around the clock until the inlet was finally closed—a moment of relief and excitement that the mayor equated with the golden spike being driven on the Transcontinental Railroad. Emergency responders could finally begin to move people and supplies in and out of the barrier island area. 

Enact Emergency Routing Plan in Advance

Brick is a driving town, with a patchwork quilt of sections spread out over 32 square miles, spaced apart by water bodies, and interconnected by a handful of busy county roads and highways. However, traffic became chaotic in the post-storm hours, as every signal was knocked out and many of the most important arteries were obstructed with floodwater and debris ranging from capsized yachts to destroyed buildings.

According to Chief Bergquist, police initially tried blocking intersections with road cones and tape, but people drove around or moved them. Officers managed to restore order by parking school buses in the middle of intersections, thereby detouring drivers to the few signalized intersections they had repowered with generators.

“We had to find ways to route traffic around what used to be roads, but were now rivers,” Acropolis said. “People couldn’t use the regular way that they would to go to work, go to the store, the hospital, to visit family or wherever they were going. That was a big learning curve for people, including myself.”

Now that the town knows which roads are likely to flood during an extreme storm, the mayor said he would set up the detours and put the re-routed traffic plan into effect in advance. He would also post the plans on the town’s social media platforms and website days before and get the word out to residents in the neighborhoods by any means available.

The larger rebuilding efforts along the Jersey Shore should help lessen damage of future storms, including to road systems. The New Jersey Department of Transportation is in the midst of a massive effort to rebuild Route 35 and make it more resilient to extreme storms. Upgrades planned as part of the $265 million project include the full replacement of pavement along the highway’s 12.5-mile barrier island strip, corridor-wide drainage improvements, and the installation of check valves at all of the outfall pipes on the highway to prevent tidal or storm surge backflow into the drainage system. The Army Corps of Engineers is also installing a steel seawall, to be buried beneath sand dunes, that will protect a 4-mile stretch of Route 35 from Mantoloking to Brick. 

Still, even those improvements will provide only partial protection in a repeat of the extreme flooding experienced during Sandy. Acropolis said under those conditions, cars and trucks can be useless for many emergency operations, including accessing stranded residents. “One of the other things we learned through this is that we need to have more water assets,” he said.

Evacuation Refusals Will Be Underestimated

Chief Bergquist recalled the unsettling feeling of staring across the bay, not knowing for sure how the small group of residents who refused to evacuate their beachfront homes were faring. At night, onlookers could see the glow of flames low on the skyline above the barrier island and smell the pungent fumes of natural gas wafting from its direction. News helicopters broadcasted shocking footage of Camp Osborn, a century-old neighborhood of bungalows that had been swallowed completely by the sea. Flaming gas pipes in the sand marked where some of the structures once stood.

Brick beach

N.J. Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Flames spout from ruptured natural gas pipes that once served Camp

Osborn, a community of small homes that was washed out in the storm.

The barrier island’s north-south artery, Route 35, is covered beneath

floodwaters, sand and debris.

As the storm approached, police knocked door-to-door on the barrier island to compile a list of residents who were going to stay in their homes. Although a mandatory evacuation order was in effect, Bergquist said police could not legally compel anyone to leave until danger was imminent—in other words, until the water was at their doorsteps. However, fearing that police could become stranded and endangered, the township did not leave any officers behind to enforce such an order.

About 20 residents told the town they would be staying. In reality, over 60 chose to disregard the order, according to the chief. (Remarkably, there was only one storm-related fatality in Brick on the night of Sandy; a second resident died weeks later from a fallen tree that was apparently weakened by the storm.)

Bergquist noted that heavily hyped previous storms such as 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which left most of the Shore relatively unscathed, probably fueled a sense of skepticism that drove up the number of non-evacuees. However, he hopes that one positive that comes from Sandy is that people will take future evacuations more seriously.

Get CERT-ified

Sandy was an all-hands-on-deck affair, with public works employees, firefighters, water authority workers and others all joining in the effort. The town even called in its snow removal contractors to clear the roads of debris.
Brick officials also credited the town’s volunteer Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) for its important contributions and encourage any town with the resources to form a group of its own. CERT is comprised of residents who undergo training to assist in the event of natural disasters or other emergencies. 

While CERT members weren’t used for transportation purposes, their assistance on many other fronts—such as aiding residents at holding areas and distributing first aid and supplies—freed up township workers who were. “In a storm like this, you need all of the help you can get,” said Brick Township Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Joseph Pawlowicz, who oversees the CERT program.

The storm proved to be an effective recruiting tool for Brick’s CERT. There were roughly 40 members at the time of Sandy; another 28 have joined up since and are currently receiving training, Pawlowicz said.

Send in the Army

Soon after the storm, Army National Guard detachments set up checkpoints at key access roads to Brick’s neighborhoods. Despite any hindrance to mobility, residents were relieved to know their areas were secured, Bergquist said. The Guardsmen were also effective in helping the police quell disaster sightseeing, a potential safety issue that was being discouraged by the town. The chief said that in the event of a future hurricane, he would work to have the Guardsmen staged before the storm.

Bergquist also recommends that officials meet or talk to officials from areas that have been impacted by disasters to learn about their experience. After Hurricane Katrina, the town sent its assistant planner and a few other key employees down south, and the insights gained on the trip were influential in the lead up to Sandy.

Acropolis noted that Brick was one of the earliest Shore towns to coordinate with the National Guard—a key lesson from his town’s discussions with officials in Louisiana after Katrina.

“You didn’t want somebody to evacuate their home and not have any water damage, but come back to the house and find all of their belongings stolen because it was looted,” he said.

Drill, Baby Drill

But officials unanimously agreed, if there’s one single lesson that should be heeded from Brick’s experience, it’s the importance of practice.

“Drill. Tabletop. Practice. Evaluate. Do it again,” Chief Bergquist said.

Township officials strongly recommend that any town that could be vulnerable to natural disasters participate in simulated exercises as often as possible. In August 2011—coincidentally just days before Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey—Brick conducted a full-scale emergency exercise called “Operation Surf’s Up,” which assumed a Category 5 hurricane had struck, power was lost throughout the town and the local hospital had to be evacuated. 

While noting that nothing can fully prepare emergency responders for an event like Sandy, officials said that parts of the Operation Surf’s Up experience applied accurately to the real thing. The exercise also gave Brick personnel the opportunity to get acquainted with representatives of the Army National Guard, the hospital, and the state and local emergency response organizations they would work closely with during Sandy.

Acropolis will not be in office to oversee the long-term rebuilding effort, having declined to run for a third term after 2013. Reflecting on the impacts of a storm that no one thought would ever occur, the mayor said, “Anything that seems to be pie in the sky, put it in your exercises. Is an airliner going to crash into a populated area in your town? The chances are one in a million, but put it in an exercise.” 

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