Prep Talk

Officials prep for worst with hurricane drill at St. Augustine (Daily Journal)

Posted August 23rd, 2011

Written by CODY GLENN Staff Writer

BUENA VISTA — As the height of hurricane season nears, local disaster relief agencies are now more prepared to handle the worst.

Officials carried out a Category 2 hurricane drill Saturday at St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, with the Atlantic County Office of Emergency Preparedness teaming up with the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Atlantic is the only county in the state to implement a “medical needs shelter plan,” according to Edward Conover, the county’s deputy emergency management coordinator.

Rescue workers set up cots, grilled chicken and practiced medical responses in an attempt to leave no stone unturned as they prepared housing some 500 evacuees at the school in a scenario where a storm packing winds stronger than 100 mph strikes the Jersey coast.

The last time a hurricane directly hit South Jersey was 1903. But, Monmouth County Red Cross staffer Leo Pratte noted, “it’s not a matter of if another hurricane will hit, but when.”

The rarity of hurricanes here means many residents would doubt whether a hurricane warning is legitimate, causing many to heed the call too slowly, he said.

“Survival is speed,” Pratte said. “The hard part is convincing people to leave everything behind and evacuate. Those who survive are those who get out of harm’s way the fastest.”

People living in eastern Atlantic County could head to St. Augustine Prep or The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Pomona, while many Cumberland County residents would find refuge at the Cumberland County Technical Education Center in Rosenhayn or Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Sewell.

About 40 shelters in all would be opened throughout the seven-county region. If warranted, hundreds of last-minute shelters — called shelters of last resort — also would also be set up, Pratte said.

Pratte was one of 36 Red Cross representatives at the drill. Most were volunteers from the organization’s Jersey Coastal Region, which encompasses Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester, Monmouth, Cape May and Ocean counties. They joined 15 representatives from Atlantic’s emergency preparedness office and the Salvation Army, which brought its canteen truck.

All three groups would work in concert in the event of a disaster: The county office would provide the bulk of the medical care, while the Red Cross would handle the shelter and the Salvation Army would provide the food.

Organizers on site called the Prep’s location “ideal” because it is on the west side of Atlantic County, away from the coast, but is close to evacuation routes, such as Route 40.

The facility itself now uses solar power, with a backup diesel generator, so it would be OK in the event of a power outage.

The all-boys Richland college prep campus is one of the only private schools in the state to offer shelter in the face of disasters.

“Working with St. Augustine has been phenomenal,” Conover said. “They approached us about the idea, and we took them up on their offer. Their support and cooperation is amazing.”

Pratte said 98 percent of shelters are public schools, churches or community centers. Having a private school step up is rare.

St. Augustine faculty administrator Dave Graber explained the school is just trying to be a “good neighbor” and “part of the community.”

“They had nothing in the western part of the county, so we thought we’d be the perfect place,” Graber said. “Our students come from seven counties and we have the facilities here, so we’re happy to do whatever we can to help.”

The Prep’s newest gym facility, The Forum, is designated as medical site. The old gym, known as The Cave, is set up as congregant care, or general population not requiring medical attention.

A couple Hermits themselves also were part of the exercise Saturday, lending a hand and their familiarity of the compound.

Cross country team member John Tedesco of Bridgeton said all the recent flooding near him in western Cumberland County was a wakeup call.

“It got really bad out there Sunday,” Tedesco, a junior, said. “I feel pretty good that there’s plans in place like this if things get critical.”

For Atlantic County Red Cross volunteer Becky Christon, it was a way to shed the feeling of helplessness.

“Rather than watching the news and crying about places like Tuscaloosa (Ala.) and Joplin (Mo.),” Christon said, “I want to help out.”