Hoboken Mayor Thrust Onto National Stage By Sandy (Video)
Taking the needs of urban communities to the federal level
When Sandy hit New Jersey on Oct. 29, the water came fast to Hoboken. The Hudson River streamed over the banks, pooling in front of the city's iconic Erie Lackawanna train terminal, then flooding the commuter and PATH trains that are the lifeline to jobs in New York City.
Breaches uptown and downtown along the borders of the city sent rivers into streets that had never before flooded. A full 70 percent of the Mile Square City that is birthplace to Frank Sinatra lies in a flood plain. That 1 percent storm had hit -- a confluence of the high tide of a full moon and the Atlantic Ocean surge.
Power was out for 90 percent of the citizens, leaving people to rely largely on Twitter and Facebook for bits and pieces of information, where signals were available. A local church that feeds the homeless daily was put into action as an emergency shelter for the displaced. Thousands were still trapped in their homes days later, unable to leave even as flood waters started to recede because of the many live power lines downed in the flood waters.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer captured the attention of both the nation and the state of New Jersey when she issued a cry for help on Anderson Cooper 360.
"We are desperate for the National Guard to come in," she implored. "There's a chain
of command with the state. [They say] They're coming. They're coming. They're
coming. But they're not here."
By the end of the broadcast, which equated the picture to Katrina in New Orleans, the state announced that the National Guard was in fact on its way to rescue the 15,000 to 25,000 people who were still in their homes. Half the town remained stranded, but the biggest factor was that nobody really knew where the emergencies were. (See "Heroes of Superstorm Sandy: Prescriptions Filled, Lives Saved")
Information boards were posted at City Hall and runners would take flyers produced daily and distribute them by hand to citizens. Updates on where to get food and supplies, where to file for FEMA aid, where to volunteer, where to go for help. Misinformation and rumors were rampant. Zimmer's leadership got her a role on a presidential task force, another television appearance testifying in Washington, D.C. on behalf of small businesses, and recognition from Glamour magazine as a woman who can "Get Sh*t Done." Her advice: Speak up.
One year later, Mayor Zimmer can vividly recall riding through the streets with the first National Guard truck and hearing the people cheer because help had finally arrived. But there was still no way to pinpoint who had run out of food or might be suffering a heart attack. No one from Hoboken died during the outbreak, but the failure in communications is now being addressed in the MileMesh initiative spearheaded by the Hoboken-based N.J. Tech Meetup.
The plan is to create a solar-powered communication system and network that can function even when all regular sources of power are down. Residents will be encouraged to put antenna on their roofs to sustain a grassroots communications grid. The city has also worked with Stevens Institute of Technology and the state to prepare a resiliency plan to protect the residents from future storm surges based on a model of how the water entered town.
Today only a handful in Hoboken remain displaced from their homes. Others live with disrepair and many businesses could not sustain the double hit of Hurricane Irene and Sandy. The personal financial impact is real for many more. Yet real estate prices in the city remain stable, in fact they're escalating. And national outlets like the Gap and Anthropologie have since opened on the main business street.
Zimmer is proud of the influence she exerted as a member of President Obama's Sandy Rebuilding Task Force under Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. The federal task force in its final report included her recommendations for an adjustment to the national flood insurance program that would give urban dwellers money toward the cost of raising their utilities just as suburban homeowners can get aid for raising the levels of their homes.
Getting to participate on a conference call with the President was "surreal" and something she will always remember. But getting the extensive and expensive work done to shore up the city for the inevitable future storm is top of mind.
"For me, [Sandy] was very personal. I came and I slept on a cot in city hall. I was really concerned about keeping our community safe. You just do what you have to do. I didn't even really stop to think about it," she recalls.
On Oct. 29, the mayor and the Community Emergency Response Team will be on the steps of City Hall to promote their family resiliency plan. The volunteer group is now 100-strong and 60 more residents are in training.
"It needs to be part of everyone's everyday life," Zimmer said in an interview at her office last week. "Where is your kit? Have you checked your batteries? If a storm is coming, have you moved your car?"
Zimmer's husband, she notes, did not. About 4,000 cars were eventually destroyed by water damage and corrosion.
Video interview with Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken
More Sandy: One Year Later
One Homeowner's Sandy Insurance Story