Full Evacuation Recommended
Cape May County officials say full evacuation necessary
Cap: Cape dwellers used to take shelter in a big storm but the county is now publicizing a policy to get everybody out following routes to the north and west. They say it can be done within 36 hours.
By Richard Degener
Published: Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Updated: Tuesday, December 20, 2005CAPE MAY — If you live on Cape Island there is only one place to go in a big storm: Somewhere else.
That is more than a recommendation Cape May County Emergency Management Director Frank McCall delivered to residents of Cape May, Cape May Point and West Cape May at a recent forum held here at Convention Hall. It is actually a mandate.
McCall will be soon be delivering the same mandate to residents in the county’s other 13 towns during a series of six meetings on the resort peninsula. McCall will tell them much of the county is under water even in the smallest of hurricanes, a Category 1, and in a larger storm there is no way out once floodwaters hit.
“People ask, ‘Where are the shelters in Cape May County?’ Ladies and gentlemen, we have no shelters in Cape May County. We want you to get off the Jersey Cape,” McCall said.
Is this because of Hurricane Rita or Hurricane Katrina? No, not really. Those storms may have focused more attention on the issue but McCall said the policy goes back a few years. He said the county planned a series of public outreach forums earlier this year, months before the Gulf coast was hit.
Residents who lived here in 1985 when Hurricane Gloria passed by remember being sent to evacuation shelters, often the local fire hall. These unofficial shelters were supposed to be made official after a 1992 study on hurricane evacuation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Red Cross, and New Jersey State Police.
“It listed 397 shelters in Cape May County, including 50 here on The Promenade, 75 to 80 on the Wildwood boardwalk, and 25 on the Ocean City boardwalk. I refused to sign off on the plan,” McCall said.
Instead of shelters, those areas are now referred to as “staging areas” for a mass evacuation. McCall said the agencies have all agreed there is no place in the county to ride out even a Category 1 hurricane.
Hurricane Gloria and U.S. Coast Guard Training Center Cape May both played a role in the decision to not shelter people in a storm. The Coast Guard evacuated to Fort Dix three days before Gloria hit. The small boats were taken to Philadelphia and the big boats were taken out to sea into deep water.
“Everybody left the U.S. Coast Guard base except the guy in the gatehouse,” McCall said.
The decision was made easier when maps came out showing the amount of flooding a direct-hit hurricane would bring. Only the northwest corner of the county, and a narrow strip of high ground in the center of the peninsula, would be dry. Most of the roads out will be under water once the storm hits.
The county is publicizing a map to show there are many ways the 105,000 year-round residents, but up to 1 million on a hot summer day, can get out. The Garden State Parkway, Route 47 and Route 9 are the major northbound routes, though with the bridge at Beesley’s Point closed McCall notes Route 9 travelers would have to link to a road like Route 83 at some point.
McCall said the evacuation could be done in 20 hours but it might take as much as 36 hours at the height of the summer tourist season. He said several steps would be taken to help the exodus, including:
Route 47, between Route 83 and Route 55, would be made one-way northbound;
Tolls would be suspended on the parkway
Atlantic City Expressway would be one-way westbound.
As the lowest lying area of the county, and the farthest from safety, Cape Island residents technically would be evacuated first. The reality, McCall told residents, is the order would be given to the whole county at the same time. Southern county residents have farther to go and could find themselves behind everybody else. West Cape May Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Rutherford said locals must take such an order seriously.
“We need people to leave and leave early,” Rutherford said. “As (Deputy Coordinator) Paul Mullock says, ‘Brace for wind but run from water.’” he added.
While Gloria brought a mandatory order to evacuate to a nearby shelter, the next order will be to leave the county. McCall said three hurricanes have followed a similar track as Gloria since 1985 and could have led to such an order. With better science and communications, McCall is confident an order won’t be given unless absolutely necessary.
Residents asked if Route 55 could be finished or certain bridges could be widened. McCall urged them to pressure the officials that can make such things happen.
The meetings are also to update the public on other emergency efforts, including some outgrowths of the Sept. 11 attack. The county is prepared to respond to terrorist attacks through its CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive) training. Prosecutor Robert Taylor led tours of the new $336,000 Mobile Command Unit purchased with Homeland Security funds. The vehicle has equipment allowing communication with all agencies no matter what radio frequency they are using.
“It won’t be like Katrina where they couldn’t talk to their parishes and state police. The problem at the World Trade Center is they couldn’t evacuate the building because they couldn’t talk to each other,” Taylor noted.
They should be able to talk now, even it’s just to say one thing: Get everybody somewhere else.