COURT HOUSE -- An estimated 95 percent of Cape May County’s resident and tourist population -- upward of 800,000 -- was gone by Sat., Aug. 27. It was the weekend before Labor Day weekend, yet officials were pleased.
That meant the masses had followed the mandatory evacuation order issued Thur., Aug. 25 to go north or west, anywhere away from the flooding and wind of Hurricane Irene, a Category 1 storm packing sustained 85 mph winds with 100 mph gusts.
“Zero hour is approaching,” stated N.J. State Police Sgt. Patrick Gorman of the state Office of Emergency Management.
“If there is anyone who has second thoughts of getting out, they have a limited time to get out. Call 9-1-1 or their local police department. They will help you get out. In a short period, you will not be able to get out. Zero hour is approaching,” Gorman said.
At that point, the top question was shelters.
Gorman said shelters are being coordinated through the state Operations Center and county Office of Emergency Management.
“Do not head to a shelter and assume it is open. It may not be open in this county. It may be three or four counties away. Unless it is confirmed here, do not go,” Gorman said.
Roadways are getting risky, with winds of 29 mph. He said most police departments are reluctant to send personnel out in winds over 45 mph when signs and other flying debris may cause injuries to the responding officer.
At a 3 p.m. press conference in the Cape May County Library, Frank McCall, Cape May County Emergency Management director and County Prosecutor Robert Taylor fielded questions and dispelled rumors that looting may result from deserted barrier island communities.
Taylor said law enforcement was on guard in those towns to deter such criminal activity. Members of his office were patrolling streets that were “basically empty.” Chiefs of police and their personnel on the island communities are on the lookout,” he added.
Middle Township has imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. Sat., Aug. 27 until 6 p.m. Sun., Aug. 28.
“We will not fine anybody or drag them from their home. This is America. We just told them we are not going to attempt to rescue them at the height of the storm. They are on their own,” said Taylor.
That is why; McCall said that every effort has been made to get the population of late-departing residents into shelters by nightfall.
“We won’t want people wandering around in the dark. Call our office (609) 463-6570. We will make sure you are protected,” McCall added.
Return into the county should not be considered a given on Monday, said McCall. All reentry would be predicated on restoration of electric power, which is assumed to go out, at least in portions of the county, due to trees and down power lines.
McCall said he would not make the reentry decision by himself, but would rely on “input from a lot of people.”
“We don’t know the impact of Hurricane Irene. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he said. Once it passes, we will make sure the utilities are safe, up and running, make sure the highways are clear and there are no issues. We will let the people know when it is safe and secure,” he added.
Pressed on the Monday return McCall reiterated, “I don’t know what will happen on Monday. We will assess that situation when the hurricane is north of us. Our concern is for the people’s safety. We don’t want people to come back to an unsafe situation.”
Thus far, McCall said there have been no reported injuries or fatalities in the evacuation process. He hopes to maintain that track record.
He said the National Guard is “staged” in Cape May County, and lauded the “seamless” effort of federal state and county agencies that have worked together to make the preparation smooth.
Members of the County Prosecutor’s Office relocated to the second floor of the county library building on Mechanic Street, due to the possibility of flooding of their office east of Garden State Parkway in Swainton.
Freeholder Gerald Thornton said the remaining 20 of 167 residents of Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center were evacuated to long-term nursing centers in distant counties Aug. 26. It was an emotional time, he said, since one frail resident expressed her sentiments on leaving her home.
Sheriff Gary Schaffer reported the safe and secure transfer of 80 inmates from Cape May County Correctional Center to the Salem County Correctional Center. Accompanying the inmates are three corrections officers and a nurse. All medical records and files had to be removed with those inmates, Schaffer told the Herald.
The number of inmates is now about 180, which will allow provisions for three days at the county center, Schaffer said.
He also urged residents who want to receive instant notification of alerts from his office to visit: cmcsheriff.net. Once there, click on Flash Briefs, and follow the prompts. Messages will be sent to the person’s e-mail account of information.