Christie: take Sandy seriously

Posted: October 28, 2012

We've all been through the pre-storm hysteria before, but New Jersey's Gov. Chris Christie is warning the state's residents not to be cynical about it this time.

"We should not underestimate this storm," he said Saturday at a press conference in North Wildwood. He had declared at state of emergency in the morning and a mandatory evacuation of the state's barrier islands by Sunday afternoon.

Residents should be off the islands entirely by 4 p.m. Sunday, he said.

Local police forces could shut down causeways to the barrier islands after that time, officials said. To ease travel, state tolls will be waived starting at 6 a.m. Sunday. State officials planned to monitor traffic and may impose the waiver even earlier Saturday night.

Christie said he can't force people to evacuate but told Shore residents to take his warnings seriously. Last year's Hurricane Irene swept in and out, he said. Sandy is expected to linger, blasting the islands with hurricane-force winds for 24 to 36 hours and potentially causing much more serious damage and widespread power outages that could last for days.

Christie said residents across the state can check ready.nj.gov for a checklist of essentials and information on shelters around the state – and told a crowd of excited onlookers at the North Wildwood firehouse where he spoke to make sure their transistor radios have batteries.

"You don't want to go more than a day without hearing me," he said to laughter.

The worst of Hurricane Sandy with its high winds and heavy rain is supposed to hit Monday night.

"This has the potential to be a really serious storm," Christie said.

The biggest dangers, he said, are from flooding and power outages. "Trees are going to come down. Light poles are going to come down," he said. "Substations are going to be flooded and we're going to lose power." Christie, who is pushing for greater ability to fine utilities, said he hopes the outages will not be as prolonged as they were after Irene.

While Sandy was briefly downgraded to a tropical storm Saturday morning, Marshall Moss, vice president of forecasting at AccuWeather, Inc., said it hardly matters what you call her. The size of the storm, its wind - gusts of 60 to 80 mph in this area - and the rain - 4 to 8 inches - will wreak havoc for hundreds of miles.

"It's going to affect millions and cost billions," Moss said. The storm, he said, likely will cause downed trees, flooding and power outages that could last for days or weeks and will affect an area from Virginia through New England.

No doubt with that in mind, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared the state of emergency. The declaration activates parts of the State Emergency Operations Plan, broadens powers of the New Jersey State Police including traffic control and issuing evacuation orders if needed, the governor's office said.

A mandatory evacuation order for South Jersey's barrier islands, including Atlantic City, requires people to leave by 4 p.m. Sunday. "They're going to close down the bridges," said Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. "You can't have people driving on an elevated bridge in 70 mph winds." People who don't evacuate, she said, will find it "extraordinarily difficult to get help."

Christie said he did not like telling people to leave their homes, but felt he had no choice. The state, he said "is looking at hurrican-force winds on the barrier islands sustained for 24 hours or more. It is simply unsafe for people to be there."

Col. Rich Fuentes, superintendent of the New Jersey State police need to think not only of their own safety, but that of emergency personnel. "They will put themselves at risk to save you," he said, "but they shouldn't have to."

Saturday afternoon, Christie's office issued a warning to merchants who jack up prices during the storm. "Price gouging is illegal," the administration said, and violators will face "significant penalities."

Moss said he is "fairly confident" that the storm will make landfall somewhere between the Delmarva coast and Long Island. In coastal areas, the biggest concern will be five- to 10-foot storm surges.

Anybody who has been told to evacuate, he said, "really needs to be taking precautions."

"I believe the impacts of this will be worse than Irene last year overall," Moss said.

While this area will begin feeling the effects of the storm on Sunday night and Monday, the worst of it likely will reach us late Monday evening. It will wind down through Tuesday.

In this area, the storm will be an unusual combination of a tropical weather system with a cold air mass. Moss called it a "truly historic" event that will act more like a Nor'easter than a hurricane. "We're talking about the potential for heavy wet snow in West Virginia," he said. "You don't see snow concerns out of a hurricane usually." We're not likely to get snow here.

The heavy rain could extend into western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Even central Pennsylvania will see wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on Friday urged residents of flood-prone areas, including Eastwick and parts of Cobbs Creek, Main Street Manayunk, Delaware Avenue, river road, areas around Pennypack Creek and Kelly, Martin Luther King and Lincoln drives, to go somewhere else by 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Some Manayunk residents Saturday said they thought they lived far enough up the hill that they would be safe.

Eighty-four-year-old John Antoniolo, lives a block up from Main Street. "I've got a lot of emergency lights in my house. I was an electrician by trade," he said. "I'm lucky to live in an area that has more than adequate sewage. We don't get much flooding on this side of the street. I'm staying here for the weekend."

Brandon McDonald and Charlie Greene, college students who live in a house a few blocks up, also felt confident they could ride out the storm.

"I'm definitely going to pick up a flashlight and some other supplies. I think we're a bit unprepared but we've been OK in the past," McDonald said Saturday morning.

Greene said they cleaned their gutters yesterday. "We had no flooding during Hurricane Irene last year or power outage, but our neighbor had some flooding issues in his basement," he said. "We'll see what happens."

Emergency managers are bracing for the storm as though readying for an enemy invastion.

Utilities, stung by complaints about their responses to the outages caused by Irene last summer and the freak derecho wind storm in June, advised customers throughout the region to anticipate widespread power outages that could last beyond Election Day.

At the Shore, the boards went up on beachfront homes and boardwalk businesses. Boats were pulled from the water or secured at docks in marinas from Sea Bright to Cape May.

Camden County Saturday released a detailed list of what it had been doing to prepare for the storm, including cleaning thousands of inlets and storm water dreams, cleaning 400 miles of roads, revoking all employees vacation and personal time until the storm is over, gassing up all county vehicles and testing all generators at critical county locations.

In a press release, freeholder Ian Leonard, who was overseeing emergency efforts, also urged residents to look in on elderly neighbors. "We need to watch out for neighbors and help each other out during the hurricane," he said.

On the Pennsylvania mainland, Gov. Corbett declared a disaster emergency, as did Chester County, and emergency centers were activated in Harrisburg and Trenton.

What AccuWeather is labeling "the Storm of the Century" already has been blamed for killing more than 40 people in the Caribbean before heading north for an encounter with one of the nation's densest population corridors.

The hurricane is on a northerly course that would take it parallel to the Carolinas, and tropical-storm warnings were posted as far north as Duck, N.C., on Friday night. Eventually, Sandy is expected to jog west, interact with another storm, and mutate into a dangerous rain-maker.

The final destination of Sandy's center is still uncertain, but the storm almost surely will end up being a multi-billion-dollar event, one of the costliest on record. It has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Cuba and Jamaica, according to the AIR Worldwide insurance service.

With widespread flooding probable in the Midatlantic and Northeast, that price is likely to skyrocket.

To lower the risk of flooding along the lower Delaware, water was being released from the Neversink Reservoir in upstate New York. In Burlington County, gates were opened on dams on both the north and southwest branches of the Rancocas Creek to lower the water level.

Gov. Christie ordered four North Jersey reservoirs drawn down beginning Friday evening in anticipation of rising water levels.

Given the relatively low river and stream levels, the major flood threats should hold off until later Monday or Tuesday. But nuisance road-ponding could begin with the first rains Sunday as leaf-clogged storm drains allow water to back up.

On Friday, crews were out trying to clear those drains, and transportation officials were planning for bus detours, tardy trains, and reduced speed limits.

SEPTA expects to keep its Market-Frankford and Broad Street subways operating, even if many bus routes and rail lines are halted. Some commuters may want to switch to the subways, SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

SEPTA will not repeat last year's mistake and leave trains parked on flood-prone tracks in Trenton, Williams said. Last year, 12 rail cars were extensively damaged by Hurricane Irene floodwaters after being left on tracks along Assunpink Creek at the Trenton station.

Highway officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey alerted contractors to be ready to remove fallen trees from roads, and additional highway barriers and barrels were ordered for blockading flooded roads.

Philadelphia International Airport said it was preparing for potential disruptions, and some U.S. airlines are giving travelers a way out if they want to scrap their plans. JetBlue, US Airways and Spirit Airlines are offering waivers to customers who wish to reschedule their flights without paying the typical fee of up to $150.

If necessary, the Red Cross said it was ready to open emergency shelters.

Forecasters insisted late Friday it was still impossible to pin down precisely where Sandy would crash into land and who would get the worst of it, but they didn't like what they were seeing.

Said Smerbeck: "This is the worst-case scenario."

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com

Inquirer staff writers Jackie Urgo, Jan Hefler, Linda Loyd, Andrew Maykuth, Walter Naedele, Paul Nussbaum, James Osborne, and Joe Trinacria contributed to this article.

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