Improves Emergency Procedures For Catastrophic Event, Natural Disaster
TRENTON – Legislation Senator Jeff Van Drew sponsored to improve state emergency evacuation plans in preparation for a catastrophic event or natural disaster, such as a hurricane or tropical storm, was signed into law today by Governor Chris Christie.
Developed from the recommendations of a legislative task force formed in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the law (S-264/A-3224) addresses a number of areas involving emergency response, from identifying and creating additional shelters to be used in the event of an emergency to establishing evacuation strategies on major coastal roadways to ensure that residents are able to vacate an affected area in an orderly fashion. A key piece of the law requires that evacuation plans are consistent among counties and ensures the public is made aware of the procedures to follow in the event of an evacuation.
Senator Van Drew said the evacuation of Cape May and Atlantic counties, as well as areas across New Jersey, during Tropical Storm Irene – then, believed to be a hurricane – demonstrated the need to improve and update emergency plans. For example, the state must take steps to ensure that shelters are available and equipped to house residents long term in the event of a severe storm that results in people being displaced for several weeks. In addition, the state needs additional pet shelters, which will better ensure that residents do not stay behind out of fear for their animal’s safety.
“Hundreds of thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes in preparation for Irene, and because of the work of emergency personnel at all levels it was done with very few complications,” said Senator Van Drew (D-Cape May/Atlantic/Cumberland). “However, we learned there is still much work to do when it comes to creating a comprehensive emergency response plan for our state. In the event the storm directly impacted our coast, we may not have had the capacity to place residents in shelters for long periods of time. This law will begin the process of identifying and creating additional shelters across the state.”
Specifically, the law requires the director of the state Office of Emergency Management to review the evacuation and shelter plans of coastal counties, as well as those that surround them. Working with county emergency officials, the director will integrate plans among counties, and between the counties and the state.
The law also requires the director of OEM to launch an annual public awareness campaign using the Internet and other available resources to provide residents with information about how they would be notified in the event of an emergency evacuation, which routes they should follow and the supplies they should have readily available in the event of a disaster.
Other provisions in the law will:
• Require a team of experts – with members from the Office of Emergency Management, the departments of Health and Senior Services, Community Affairs and Human Services – to identify schools and other locations that could be used as short- and long-term shelters in a state-wide emergency.
• Require that all newly constructed elementary and secondary schools be evaluated during the planning or design phase to determine whether the school could serve as a potential location for an emergency shelter. Factors to be considered in making that determination include, but are not limited to, the suitability, necessity, and financial feasibility of that school serving as an emergency shelter during a state of emergency.
TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
• Require the New Jersey State Police to work in conjunction with the Department of Transportation and emergency management coordinators to implement a lane reversal strategy on the Atlantic City Expressway and the Garden State Parkway in preparation for an evacuation during an emergency.
• Prohibit the towing of a drawn or towed trailer in the area where an emergency had been declared and an evacuation ordered, regardless of whether lane reversal was in effect.
• Require state and county emergency management officials to identify critical infrastructure that would need alternative emergency power generators in the event of an outage.
• Allow counties to develop a central registry for residents with special needs who require additional assistance during an emergency.
• Require the Department of Health and Senior Services to provide for a coordinated statewide evacuation strategy for hospitals and other health care facilities, to include a plan to get patients alternative sources of care and temporary shelter.
• Expand Emergency Operation Plans on the state, county and municipal levels to include domesticated animals in evacuation plans, in addition to the current requirement to address the needs of farm and service animals during an emergency.
The legislation was developed from recommendations by an 11-member state task force that reviewed emergency plans in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The Assembly Coastal New Jersey Evacuation Task Force, which Van Drew chaired as a member of the General Assembly, held five meetings in separate coastal counties over eight months, and finalized its work in May of 2008. The law will implement a number of the recommendations.
“Updating our emergency plans is critical to ensuring that we are prepared for any weather activity that comes our way. This process is particularly important to protecting our residents in the event a large-scale storm directly impacts the coast,” said Senator Van Drew. “This law will set into motion actions that are crucial to improving the state’s overall emergency preparedness.”
The law will take effect on the first day of the thirteenth month following enactment, but the Director of the State Office of Emergency Management may take such anticipatory administrative actions in advance as necessary for the implementation of this act.