Last year when Hurricane Irene struck Howell the township had several neighborhoods and major roads impassible due to flooding. With Hurricane Sandy the township was spared the flooding of some neighboring towns but still sustained its share of damage.
Councilman Robert Nicastro said that the two storms are comparable because this time there were more people directly affected by the storm. "Although we didn't experience the flooding that we did see during Hurricane Irene we are experiencing significant challenges," he said.
That includes power outages that have left more than 20 thousand residents in the dark, large trees coming down and bringing power lines with them and wind swept debris making travel hazardous on many local roads. Nicastro said the debris is more spread out than the damage done by Irene, which he said "was a little more isolated to specific areas."
By Wednesday afternoon traffic was heavy again on Route 9 as drivers returned to the road. Councilman Nicastro said that is not what the township is hoping to see as traffic lights remain out and there are only two places to change directions in the township. "We can't stress enough to the people to stay off the roads for safety concerns unless it's urgent they get out," he said.
One of the scariest parts of the traffic on Route 9 was people making their own rules when it came to crossing at intersections. Nicastro said that can be dangerous for them and others. "We ask them to use extreme caution and not to go through the traffic cones that are placed for turning and to obey as many traffic laws as they can."
Since the storm hit Nicastro said many of the calls that have come in to the township's Emergency Operations Center have been questions about when the power might come back on. He said they are giving residents the same answer they are getting from JCP&L. "They are working on it to the best of their ability but to anticipate outages for 7 to 10 days."
Township Manager Helene Schlegel said getting everyone back online "could be a long process," but she added, "They've assured us that they're working aggressively."
There are no shelters in town for the residents without power and no plans to start one but the councilman said the township can arrange for residents to be taken to one of the county operated locations.
On Wednesday night a team of volunteers went out into the community to help alert residents who may not have received news from the township about their options for the storm.
Deputy Mayor Bill Gotto said he has been glad to see the number of volunteers coming out but is also not surprised that residents have been so willing to help. "This has happened every single emergency we've had," he said. "I think tomorrow there will be more because the word will start to get out."
On Thursday morning volunteers are asked to come to the new Municipal Building at 10 a.m. to go through the township to help clear debris from the storm. In previous years Gotto said they have gotten so many volunteers out that they have had to turn some away. He hoped to have a similarly fortunate problem on Thursday.
With the downed trees and wires and the outages Nicastro said there is no timeframe for when the township will be back to how it was prior to Sandy. "We are working feverishly to get it back as soon as possible," he said. "DPW staff is out there around the clock to get this town back to normal as fast as possible."
Schlegel said now that the storm has passed the real work begins for the township. "Now that the storm is over, now that we know that everyone is safe, now is the time of cleaning up in the aftermath," she said.
One of the most important parts of cleaning for residents, she said, is to stay away from any downed wires. "They have to consider all wires as live," she said. "Especially with the power coming back on some of the wires that were dead may be re-energized."
Schlegel said crews have already been able to clear the streets that were blocked by down trees. However, when there are wires in the trees the township crews are unable to work with them. "We can't send our workers, volunteers, or anyone to be working on trees where the wires are down," she said.
For close to a week Nicastro and Schlegel said they had known the storm was coming and the councilman said they tried to get the warnings out to residents as quickly as possible.
Schlegel said they learned from Irene how important communication can be during a crisis and saw the positive results of that with this storm. She said before the storm arrived residents who were affected by the flooding of Irene were encouraged to find other places to go and sand bags were provided to protect their and other resident's homes. Fortunately a change in the weather meant those areas were spared of any additional flooding, she said.
Gotto called the past three days, "a little uncertain," as they waited to see what affect the storm would have on the town. "I think when it gets to the point where as a municipality we're doing everything we can, the longer that goes on I think new issues start arising," he said.
Now that the cleanup has begun Gotto said there are still lots of questions to be answered. "There are things we kind of had on our plate that you start to see it as a reality and you get a little nervous," he said. "We're confident. But you never know what the next day is going to bring."
He said since the storm hit each day has started with a morning briefing where they get an update on a variety of issues including what storm related calls they got the night before. "That starts a whole new set of things we have to deal with," he said.
For more information on the storm and storm related questions call the Emergency Operations Center at 732-938-4111.