For Jersey Shore towns, blizzard highlights need for military trucks

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 A military Humvee was put to use in West Wildwood during the recent storm. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A military Humvee was put to use in West Wildwood during the recent storm. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Flooding was so bad in parts of South Jersey during last weekend’s blizzard that some residents and local officials compared the severity of the nor’easter to Superstorm Sandy three years ago.

What saved many people who were caught off guard by what one local official called “fierce and furious” flooding: military trucks.

“We had a five-ton [troop transport truck] placed at a nice point where the tides usually start to come up. We had a patrol in one of the Humvees,” said Arthur Drexler, police chief of Barnegat Township, a coastal town in Ocean County.

“It allowed us to get through an area where frankly we wouldn’t be able to get to.”

In recent years, the federal government has been giving away surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies through a Pentagon initiative called the 1033 program.

Some cities in New Jersey and across the country have started collecting non-weaponized military trucks through the program to better respond to disasters, such as the blizzard last weekend.

“It could be a life-saver, whether it be in hurricanes or snowstorms or whatever,” said Cumberland County Sheriff Robert Austino, whose deputies rescued a driver who had been stranded for six hours in his car during the snowstorm.

But opponents of the 1033 program say that giving domestic law enforcement agencies — often small forces — equipment intended for the battlefield overly militarizes police.

“In the country we will need, at some point, to recognize [a] balance must be made between the safety of responders during emergencies and the concern the public has with show of force at other times,” said Jess Bonnan-White, assistant professor of criminal justice at Stockton College.

“This means transparency and accountability on the part of our public agencies and a willingness on the side of the public to understand the situations in which this equipment means safety for all in circumstances like those presented last weekend.”

Some South Jersey officials, while praising the program, said local towns and agencies can abuse the federal government’s largesse.

“You’ll never hear me say this is a bad thing with the military surplus vehicles, because they’re so central to us here in the barrier islands and we’re not abusing them. But there are towns that do,” said West Wildwood Mayor Christopher Fox, who relies on more than a handful of military trucks for rescuing residents during storms.

“They’re the towns you need to go to and say, ‘Why do you need this piece of apparatus?'”

In North Wildwood, where crews rescued more than 150 people during the blizzard, Mayor Patrick Rosenello rejected criticism of the 1033 program and said a vehicle’s provenance means little during a dangerous storm.

“When people are calling to be rescued out of their houses, and the only vehicle available is a surplus military truck, I don’t think anybody cares that these are surplus military vehicles,” said Rosenello.

Other military equipment available through the federal program includes armored trucks, boats, assault rifles, office furniture, and clothing.

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