Disaster preparedness touted by Red Cross and utilities

Looking out at the city’s renovated picturesque marina Tuesday, Mathieu Nelessen said it was hard to believe nearly two years ago he was helping Mayor Wilda Diaz offer assistance to residents impacted by the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy.

“These disasters, whether large-scale or small scale strike at a moments notice and I think what we realized throughout New Jersey is that we were not prepared and the state was not prepared,” said Nelessen, American Red Cross North Jersey regional chief executive officer.

And Nelessen doesn’t want that to happen again.

During a news conference at Seabra’s Armory, a waterfront restaurant and catering hall renovated after Superstorm Sandy’s storm surge gutted the first floor of the Front Street business, Nelessen noted how the American Red Cross partnered with Verizon, PSE&G and FEMA are working together to make improvements to better prepare for future emergencies and disasters as part of September’s observance of National Preparedness Month.

“National Preparedness is a shared responsibility of all levels of government, the private and non profit sectors, and individual citizens. By preparing in advance of an emergency you are reducing the negative impact of disaster and allowing a community to more quickly recover,” said Michael Wagner, FEMA Region II integration branch chief for national preparedness.

To help people prepare the American Red Cross has introduced free mobile apps, available in English and Spanish, related to first aid, hurricanes, tornadoes, flood, earthquakes and wildfires. There also is a pet first aid app. A make a plan app offers instructions for families to develop a custom emergency plan. And a one-touch “I’m safe” messaging feature allows users to alert contacts that they are out of harm’s way.

Verizon displayed a vehicle referred to as Big Rig 1, a mobile communications calling center, which has been used at disaster and emergencies scenes across the country, including the New Jersey shore area during Sandy, to offer satellite telephone and computer communication.

“After the storm I believe everyone in the state learned about the importance of being prepared for any emergency,” Diaz said.

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-20th District, chair of the Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee, said preparedness is not a one-month deal, but 12 months a year.

“Until we reach every single person then we haven’t done our job,” said Quijano who partnered with the American Red Cross in 2012 and other organizations on readiness presentations for senior citizens. “After two years of doing presentations I can tell you I have touched over 3,000 individuals. And that information has saved lives.”

Quijano said it’s important that everyone spread the word about being prepared and teach each other the tools, such as the apps, used to be prepared.

Paul Sullivan, Verizon New Jersey regional president of operations, urged everyone to develop, review and practice a plan to reach out to loved ones in the event of a disaster.

“We know Mother Nature is going to give us another storm. We know there is going to be another bad winter storm coming through here,” said Sullivan

He knows first hand the importance of having a plan in place. Sullivan said he was running in the Boston Marathon and was about a mile away when the bombs went off. He was able to reach his mother who then contacted his wife to tell her he was alright.

Loroine McKnight, Verizon Wireless regional data sales director, said last year the company invested more than $400 million to enhance the wireless network in the New York Metro area. The company also reviews its preparedness plans to help communities before a storm hits.

He suggested people charge their cell phones and tablets before a storm and also consider getting a wireless battery pack. It’s also important to have available an emergency contact list on your phone as well as hard copy, he said.

Eileen Leahy, PSE&G director of public affairs, said about 1.9 million customers lost power during Superstorm Sandy, roughly 90 percent of the customers serviced by the company.

“We’ve never had a storm like that,” she said.

Since then PSE&G has become more social media friendly using Facebook and Twitter and other communication tools for customers to text the company about an outage. She said PSE&G’s website now also features a power outage map, allowing customers to key in on their town, the location of the outage and the estimated time for power to be restored.

She said PSE&G also has invested $1.2 billion in its infrastructure. Because a number of substations flooded during Sandy, some of the funds will be used to elevate 29 substations. Funds also will be used to reduce outages to critical customers such as hospitals, water and sewage treatment plants, and refineries.

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