CAPE MAY — Hurricane Irene's evacuation proved several facts to Frank McCall, Cape May County emergency management director, and he shared them with the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce at its Sept. 15 meeting in the Grand Hotel here.
"Cape May County can be evacuated safely," McCall said. That was the primary concern of planners, he said.
"There were no injuries and no auto accidents in the evacuation. It was transparent," he said.
As he looked north and south, McCall said other states and counties experienced deaths due to the storm.
He lauded the "collaborative effort" of many in the county that made the evacuation and storm response smooth.
Additionally, McCall credited the July 27-28 Escape the Cape exercise, based on a scenario that was exactly the track Hurricane Irene followed.
"I assure you it was not done by myself," said McCall. "It was a collaborative effort in the emergency management community. If anyone would like to join here today, we would like to have you join," he offered.
What is the "one thing you would have done differently?" a member asked.
"Probably a couple of things. What I think we need to continue to work on is a better regional approach to emergency response. We need better collaboration between Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May counties. All three are effected in the same way," said McCall.
"We need a little more clear definition of evacuation zones," he said. As an example, he cited Atlantic County, which evacuated everything east of Route 9.
"People asked us why, in Cape May County, did we not just evacuate east of Route 9?" he said. "There is water on both sides of Route 9 within four to six miles. In Atlantic County, two thirds of the county is west of water," said McCall.
"We need better collaboration. I asked for better collaboration from the state, not negatively," he stressed.
There remain upcoming "after action meetings with the state and the strategies its officials used and how local officials implemented their actions to ensure future "better communication," McCall said.
Sheltering is another area that needs work, he added.
Based on whether an evacuation is voluntary or mandatory, "Where is the first shelter?" McCall asked.
Shelters "are not managed by us," McCall said.
"In a Category 1 storm, there are no shelters in this county. If we are talking in county a storm surge, tides and full moon, we would be without electric for a week or more and have 18-24 inches of water in 24 hours," he said.
Who would want to be here for such an event? he asked.
Another group that must be factored into future storm discussions are pharmacies, said another member.
"I live in North Cape May. There was a prescription I needed Thursday (Aug. 25) that I found out Thursday afternoon. Friday morning I needed to pick it up, but the pharmacy was closed due to the 8 a.m. Friday mandatory evacuation," the woman stated.
"We need to work on a clear definition who is involved in essential services. It's not just police, fire and emergency medical service, it's also pharmaceuticals and gasoline companies. The problem was, they (gasoline tankers) could not get down the (Garden State) parkway because it was closed," said McCall.
Communication was another area that needs improvement, McCall noted. In particular, with state agencies.
"We saw equipment on the parkway, and there was some concern they did not stay within the system. We went to the state EOC and asked 'Is there something you are planning you did not tell us? We could not get an answer,'" McCall said.
"Then, all of a sudden it (parkway) got closed," he said.
Fuel distributors could not get into the county while long lines of cars needed to refuel to obey the mandatory evacuation order. As a result, gasoline stations' tanks ran dry.
McCall lauded Cape Regional Medical Center and Woodbine Developmental Center, which helped supply essential services and medication to those in need.
One hospitality owner said her guests had arrived by Cape May-Lewes Ferry, and wanted to obey the evacuation order and depart, but the ferry was not operating.
McCall said the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the ferry, is "guided by a number of agencies including the Coast Guard and Captain of the Port of Philadelphia.
Michael Porch, a spokesman for the ferry, replied that because the ferry connects two coastal regions, evacuation was necessary to ensure the vessels were out of the storm's path, thus service had to be closed.
McCall noted that the decision for evacuation was made only after consultation with all emergency managers of the county's 16 municipalities. He also said that decisions for weather were based solely upon guidance from the National Weather Service, not from commercial weather entities, such as Weather Channel or Accu-Weather.
The National Weather Service noted that Irene would bring "historical flooding, historical rainfall, severely damaging winds and death-threatening circumstances. When you get those kinds of notices out of the National Hurricane Center through National Weather Service you pay attention to that," McCall said.
Contact Campbell at (609) 886-8600 Ext 28.