Bergen Community College was the site for Tuesday's Disaster Preparedness Conference organized by Jim Kirkos of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber and the Bergen County Office of Emergency Management (BCOEM). The conference was designed to provide a forum that would offer municipalities and businesses guidance and information on preparing for severe weather events.
Although the focus of the conference was on preparedness for future weather emergencies, it was the devastating effects of Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and the October snowstorm on municipalities in Bergen County, and the response of the public utility companies, that was on the forefront of the minds of local officials.
During a panel discussion, United Water's manager of Health Safety and Security, John O'Mara, informed the audience of public officials and business owners that prior to Hurricane Irene the company transferred its incident command emergency operations from its Harrington Park headquarters to its Idaho office. Unsure of the effect of Irene on operations in Harrington Park, O'Mara said that Idaho's weather conditions were optimal for being the conduit for all information relating to the storm.
Bergen County Freeholder John Driscoll took issue with that, questioning why United Water had no representative with "boots on ground" in Bergen County. He wanted to know why United Water representatives were communicating from Idaho instead of from the site of the Bergen County OEM Command Center in Mahwah.
"You saw this storm coming, it was a big one," Driscoll said, "You knew you had a dam holding water, but in your opinion you didn't feel it was necessary to send someone to the Bergen County Command Center where OEM was?"
Driscoll emphasized the fact that during Irene Gov. Christie established a chain of command in ordering all information filtered from the county OEM directors to the state.
"But you felt there wasn't a need to put someone there?" Driscoll reiterated.
"You just talked about the need for communication---that was what that was all about. You felt there was no need?" he asked again.
Driscoll continued, "I saw canoe boats going up and down streets in New Milford to get people out of their homes. I think this was a big enough storm that you should have had someone here."
"In the future there will be somebody there," a representative from United Water assured Driscoll.
Driscoll also raised the issue of the flooding of PSE&G substations. PSE&G representatives said that the utility company has invested in new gas insulated switch gear technology that is being put into Teaneck/Bergenfield substation in order to take some of the pressure off the New Milford substation.
PSE&G representatives said that although the New Milford substation was not in the flood plain when it was built, they will not be installing this new technology there because of the flooding that now occurs at that substation. Citing "overbuilding" as the cause of the flooding, PSE&G officials said some of the transformers were raised to an elevation of four feet in order to get them off the ground.
Driscoll argued that the flooding cannot entirely be attributed to overbuilding.
PSE&G reported that they have commenced studies on all the substations that are subject to flooding. The studies will conclude what can be done to prevent the flooding, what solutions are practical, and what the projected costs would be. The findings will be made available once the studies are complete.
Editor's note: There will be a separate article regarding the portion of the conference that addressed disaster preparedness for business continuity.