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When Disaster Strikes

by Danielle Burrows

A look inside our region’s emergency management centers, the first line of defense against natural disasters, biological terrorism and crises of all types.

In November of 2004, the third-largest oil spill in U.S. waters took place not on the Gulf Coast or in remote Alaska, but in the Delaware River off of Gloucester County’s shoreline.

“Many people don’t know that our Delaware River port area is the second-largest petrochemical port in county; second only to Galveston/Houston area,” says Len Clark, Gloucester County’s deputy emergency management coordinator. “One million barrels of oil go up and down river daily, and over Thanksgiving weekend of 2004, disaster struck.”

Athos I, a 750-foot-long tanker pre­paring to dock in Paulsboro, struck a submerged anchor on the river’s bottom, prompting a worst-case scenario to become a reality: Some 265,000 gallons of crude oil spilled out of the vessel and into the waters of the Delaware River.

Federal, state and local agencies re­spond­ed to the scene—including the Gloucester County Office of Emergency Management, which served as part of a unified command team led by the Coast Guard. It was a level of involvement that might not have been possible for the county office before the 9/11 attacks, which brought seismic changes to emergency preparation efforts throughout New Jersey.

When disaster strikes in South Jersey—from flooding to blizzards, to oil spills, to dangers the average person may not even be aware of—who is on the front lines? In our region, the task increasingly falls to an ever-more-sophisticated network of command centers like the one Clark oversees— cutting-edge, high-tech hubs that have centralized and transformed monitoring and response to safety concerns across South Jersey.

This level of preparedness has been a long time coming. Sixty years ago, the statewide Office of Emergency Management hardly had a plan for responding to natural disasters, let alone the complexities introduced by petrochemicals, nuclear power and a nationwide terror threat.

New Jersey’s various disaster relief programs originally focused their efforts almost exclusively on war-related defenses. But in 1979, President Jimmy Carter established the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as a direct response to the partial nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, outside of Harrisburg, Pa. Soon after, FEMA began working with state governments to set up formal emergency management programs. Today, each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has such an office. Each works interdependently to mitigate, prepare for and re­spond to emergencies and home­land security issues at both hyper-local and national levels.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local emergency management offices have seen the scope of their responsibilities broadened substantially.

“Homeland Security grants that be­came available to us after 9/11 helped prepare us for a disaster of greater scale and variety,” explains J. Thomas Butts, emergency management coordinator for Glouces­ter County. “Ours is an all-hazards approach. Because of Gloucester County’s demographics—our proximity to the chem­ical plants that line the Delaware and the fact that a railway runs through the county that carries some of the most hazardous materials in the nation—we have to be particularly prepared for a wide range of emergencies.”

The grants allowed for the development of a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) division in Gloucester County. This is the team that would respond regionally to what many Americans consider their worst nightmare: a chemical attack.

“For years before 9/11, we used Mobil Oil’s hazmat team for any hazardous materials emergencies,” Butts remembers. “Quite frankly, because the county’s population of petro facilities was increasing, we didn’t feel comfortable relying on the private sector in time of need.”

The development of the CBRN division brought to Gloucester County a tractor-trailer full of sophisticated equipment from protective suits to monitoring equipment to field communications gear to be used by local police and firemen trained specifically for CBRN-related disasters. The coun­ty’s CBRN division has been recognized statewide as a level-one team, allowing them to travel regionally to respond to emergencies if necessary.

“Since 9/11, it’s been continually nonstop. There’s never a break,” says Kevin Tuno, who assumed his position as coordinator of Burlington County’s Office of Emergency Management in 1999. On any given day, Tuno handles issues as practical as setting up health department call centers (like he did in 2009 when an H1N1 outbreak originated in Burlington County) and as abstract as averting potential security lapses as part of the Urban Area Security Initiative, a collaborative group whose membership extends as far as Maryland.

“I’m heavily involved with Philadelphia in creating an evacuation plan for receiving people from the city into New Jersey in the case of a big emergency event,” Tuno says. “Our office is also involved in homeland security, not only in looking at critical infrastructures in Burlington County, but in deciding, when we get Homeland Security money, how it’s divided. All of this is managed out of our offices.”

In addition to Tuno, two deputy coordinators and an administrative assistant round out the Burlington County Office of Emergency Management’s fulltime staff. A geographical information systems (GIS) specialist, who handles complex data-based mapping, is called in when needed—like in 2007, when Burlington County was inundated by rainstorms and much of the county was submerged for the second time in less than five years.

“When the floods hit in 2007, our GIS specialist was able to provide detailed maps. When FEMA came in to do damage assessment, their job was made easier by the data he’d collected and could provide,” Tuno says. “He’s able to do things like map fire hydrants in the Pinelands, thereby helping us plan our response in the case of a fire emergency. When there was a wildfire in 2007 that started in Warren Grove and burned into Ocean County, he was sent out in forestry trucks, and was able to map out where the burn areas were.”

FEMA is a regular visitor to both Gloucester and Burlington counties’ emergency management facilities, often setting up shop there as they handle the aftermaths of emergencies.

“Last year, FEMA was here for seven months total, handling four statewide federally declared emergencies, four of which affected Gloucester County,” Butts says. “There was the nor’easter November of 2009, a snowstorm in December of 2009, another snowstorm in February of 2010, and then the rain event in March and April of 2010.” Today, FEMA representatives are still at Gloucester County’s offices, handling the lingering repercussions of last December’s snowstorms.

Though these emergency management offices are interchangeable with other municipal buildings from the outside, they’re the vision of technological preparedness once you step inside their doors.

“Our office boasts state-of-the-art communications,” Butts says. “We have 40-inch monitors monitoring all of our local chemical plants, as well as tipping us off to statuses of local hospitals. Our office handles EMS dispatch for 16 of our county’s 24 towns. And we’re undergoing a major upgrade in our emergency operation center systems right now.”

As he keeps a close eye on a severe weather event in Salem County that threatens to hit a portion of Burlington County, Tuno points out both necessity of quality monitoring equipment and the importance of something even more essential: strong communication across regions and fields.

“Being able to build relationships, lo­cally, statewide and nationally, before an emergency,” says Tuno. “When it comes down to it, that’s what works.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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