WHYY post-Sandy forum: People who won’t evacuate are a problem

     Shore residents gathered at Middle Township High School to find common ground on post-Sandy rebuilding strategies. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

    Shore residents gathered at Middle Township High School to find common ground on post-Sandy rebuilding strategies. (Alan Tu/WHYY)

    “The PR phrase ‘Stronger Than The Storm’ is unsettling. It should be honest: ‘Stone Harbor—luckier than $&%!.'”

    Tell us how you really feel, Cape May County.

    If the crowd gathered at Middle Township High School for Tuesday night’s WHYY forum on the future of the Jersey Shore after Sandy was of a modest size, the opinions people brought along were strong and clear.

    The southern Shore’s devastation from last year was less drastic than in some northern beach towns, but memories of 2011’s Hurricane Irene are still fresh. Both storms exposed problems with infrastructure, planning and emergency response, and these shore residents don’t want to see a repeat. 

    Refusing to leave

    Members of the Green Creek Volunteer Fire Company and EMS—they’re the guys who respond to the traffic accidents that tie up narrow Route 47—said too many residents are still ignoring evacuation orders. With few routes in and out of southern Cape May County and an exploding seasonal population, forum participants said it can be hard to get stubborn homeowners to understand that, when they refuse to leave, they are putting first responders at risk

    “My whole neighborhood evacuated from Irene. Nobody left for Sandy,” and residents were left without power, said Ralph Cooper, a retiree who lives in Upper Township.

    The communities between the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, home to many year-round residents, have different concerns than beach towns heavy on vacation homeowners. Worries for them aren’t just limited to getting ready for next summer and making sure tourists’ vacations aren’t disrupted.

    And many longtime residents, having ridden out storms in the past, are reluctant to leave no matter the weather forecast, said David Zeiss, Green Creek’s fire chief.

    “The whole objective is, once they tell you to evacuate, you leave. You want to get out while you still have electricity,” he said.

    Who is listening

    Tuesday’s forum in Cape May Court House was the second in a series of post-Sandy sessions convened by WHYY/NewsWorks and led by moderators from the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. The forums are funded by the New Jersey Recovery Fund, and the project has partnered with other Recovery Fund grantees such as Sustainable New Jersey, Creative New Jersey, The Citizens Campaign and New Jersey Future. All of these organizations want to better understand how shore residents would prefer the area rebuilt. 

    Led by Chris Satullo, WHYY’s vice president for news and civic engagement, and Penn’s Harris Sokoloff, participants were asked to consider three approaches to post-Sandy response: to rebuild and prepare for the next storm; to rethink and adapt approaches to shore development; or to retreat from the coast, leaving barrier islands in a natural state and concentrate building on the mainland.

    Much consensus seemed to build around the “rethink and adapt” option, which would see actions such as dune expansion, bans on development in high-risk areas, and buyouts for some property owners.

    Yet while everyone has an opinion and most seem to know what should be done to prepare for the future, the elected officials who can actually make it happen were noticeably absent from the forum.

    Yuck factor

    And about that “Stronger Than The Storm” campaign, with its TV spots featuring Gov. Christie? Let’s say they’re not a local favorite.

    Several people complained bitterly that the commercials had spurred disaster tourism, while others took issue with the ad campaign’s almost belligerent tone, as if coastal New Jersey can continue to rebuild and repeat the past, storms be damned.

    “This whole come-down-the-shore thing led to a lot of sightseeing of the devastation. That was a horrific thing,” one woman said.

    You are invited to join us at one of our next Ready For Next Time? forums. The next forum is Aug. 5 at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. For a full lists of dates and locations, see our RSVP page.

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