Hurricane Irene Left Borough Wet and Powerless

This small brook behind Salt Brook School was nearly dry this week. But a year ago it was filled to overflowing afer Hurricane Irene dumped 17 inches of rain on New Providence. Credits: Michael Daigle
Borough employees earlier this year removed 12 trees from this section of the same brook. Water will be able to flow more freely now. This section of the  brook is at Division Avenue and passes under the bridge that was rebuilt by Union County in 2009. Credits: Michael Daigle

NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ  - Ray Cooney knew last August there was trouble as soon as the lights went out at the Elizabeth Barabash Manor senior center.

The center is home to 26 elderly residents and when Hurricane Irene knocked out the power to the building, Cooney said, “They basically were incarcerated in their own rooms.”

The trials of the residents at the borough’s senior center were among the stories that happened as the hurricane dumped 17.73 inches of rain on New Providence starting on Aug. 27.

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Thousands of residents were without power for days as the hurricane-force winds took down trees and power lines across the region. Jersey Central Power & Light said that 58,000 Union County homes lost power during the storm. More than 313,000 residents in the JCP&L service area went without power for several days.

In the borough, the Passaic River overflowed, filling streets and yards with water, and the several smaller brooks that flow through New Providence added to the watery mess.

The New Providence library spent $23,000 to make repairs after the hurricane.

Cooney said the main concern at the senior center the potential for medical emergencies, the inability of the residents who lives on the upper floors to get out if necessary, and the general inability to get around in the dark.

“The elevators were out,” Cooney said. “Residents on floors two and three were basically trapped."

Fortunately, everyone came through the storm in good shape, he said. A few residents had some minor respiratory issues in the heat.

To remedy that situation, the borough agreed to assist the center with the purchase and installation of a generator.

Cooney said it will give the center the ability to keep the elevators working and  enough power that each apartment will have minimal lighting.

“It also gives us the ability to house others in town who need shelter,” he said. “We can use our hallways and the community room, if necessary.”

Borough Administrator Douglas Marvin said installing the generator at the senior center makes sense, as did the  new generator at the borough municipal complex. The hurricane, and the Halloween snowstorm, triggered a series of improvements at the library, communications center, and senior center that added reliability to the power supply and communications ability.

The changes, Marvin said, “added quality.”

Communications during the storm were vital, Marvin said, and the borough’s emergency departments worked hard to maintain the systems even as the power failed. Informing  residents of the situations during such an emergency is also vital.

He said the borough has developed a Code Red alert system that keeps residents informed when the power is out and they can not access the borough’s website.

Further, Marvin said, the borough has developed as smart phone app which gives residents who download the application instant access to information.

Cooney said he was told at meetings with Union County officials who were assisting him with an application for a Community Development Block Grant, that a new natural-gas powered generator would cost approximately $68,000.

Cooney originally came to the Borough Council earlier this year seeking $25,000 in matching funds to support  the transfer of the old municipal complex generator to the senior center. That cost would  have been $135,000, he was told by county officials.

Instead, Marvin said, the borough could use a portion of its affordable housing trust fund to assist the purchase, since the senior center was part of the borough’s affordable housing inventory.

Marvin said the small brook flooding was a constant concern. Even brief, hard downpours fill up the narrow channels and flood the streets, shopping areas and yards.

With Irene, those small brooks that wander through residential neighborhoods and shopping areas, filled quickly.

Marvin said recently public works supervisor Jimmy Johnson removed 12 trees from the brook that runs under Division Avenue to a spot behind Salt Brook School. The debris clogs the narrow brook and helps force the water out of the channel, he said.

“Two inches of rain over two days never overflows,” Marvin said. “But two inches in an hour does.”

To help the fire department with water rescues, the borough purchased a 25-horse power outboard motor to use on the department’s rescue boat, he said.

Marvin said discussion with JCP&L to address communication snafus and misinformation that was sent to residents are ongoing. After the storm last year, Mayor J. Brooke Hern said he had joined with several Union County mayors to discuss the issues with the power company.

This spring, the council tallied up some of the costs of the storms.

Councilman James Cucco reported  the borough hauled away 119 tons of bulk waste at a cost of $11,197,108 tons of households goods for $7,368, and other trash at a cost of $9,873. The total cost of disposal was $28,438.

At the time Marvin told the council that the borough received through insurance $29,340 to cover the replacement of two damaged traffic signals, and another $23,850 to partially cover the cost of repairs at the library.

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