The forecast spelled doom. So why wasn’t N.J. ready for Ida?

Date: 2021-09-05 10:41:15

By 10:02 p.m., much of the damage was already done.

A devastating tornado destroyed a suburban neighborhood. Busy streets had transformed into treacherous waterways. And a man drowned after being swept into a 36-inch storm sewer pipe before Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency on Wednesday night.

Hurricane Ida’s remnants smacked New Jersey with such intensity — 2 to 3 inches of rainfall per hour in some regions — that many residents were hopelessly trapped in their cars or low-lying homes, despite incessant iPhone alerts and meteorologists warning of historic consequences.

“You have to ask yourself, why all the flooded cars and water rescues and the tragic drownings?” David Robinson, New Jersey’s state climatologist, told NJ Advance Media.

Murphy and experts in weather and disaster preparedness agree that the Garden State had too many cars on the road as the storm raged late Wednesday afternoon and evening. Some have asked why more residents did not heed the warnings. Others wonder if state officials could have done more to alert people — and if it would have made a difference — after the deaths of at least 27 New Jerseyans.

“In retrospect, it probably would have amped up the attention to declare a state of emergency ahead of time,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “If it was clear that these storms were coming through, and they were going to be prolonged and devastating, and it was clear with enough time to issue that state of emergency.

“The problem is that someone probably wasn’t paying close enough attention to it.”

Yet Schlegelmilch and other experts caution that it’s much easier to make that determination in hindsight. State officials were dealing with an unusual storm with an intensity likely fueled by a warming planet, making it difficult to foresee just how quickly the rain would accumulate, he added.

“This is climate change,” Schlegelmilch said. “What is happening in front of us is very different from what happened behind us.”

When asked about the timeliness of his emergency declaration for Ida, Murphy said New Jersey was ahead of New York City and New York state. It was, but the storm hit New Jersey first.

“We always do a postmortem on all these storms,” a somber Murphy said Thursday, after a day of touring storm damage. “We’re going to take a hard look at everything associated with this.”

Emergency personnel use a boat Thursday to rescue people stranded in a flooded section of Manville after the remnants of Hurricane Ida slammed New Jersey. Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media

He sometimes declares a state of emergency — a bureaucratic act that allows the state to later seek federal aid — in advance of major snowstorms. Doing so gives the state power to close roads, evacuate homes and commandeer equipment or other resources to protect public safety.

Murphy faced fierce backlash over how he handled his first snowstorm as governor in November 2018, a topic that started as a sore subject for his administration but eventually became somewhat of running joke.

His first major brush with Mother Nature ended with commuters trapped in gridlock for hours and the governor admitting the state “could have done better.” Since then, Murphy has infamously over-salted roads and declared New Jersey the “brining state of America.”

But prior governors have seen just how difficult it can be to predict the severity of storms.

Former Gov. Chris Christie rightly declared a state of emergency before Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. But he also issued one for three coastal counties ahead of 2016′s Tropical Storm Hermine, a system that stayed off the coast.

Christie’s reward? A New York Times story about angry Wildwood shop owners who said the governor drove away Labor Day weekend business.

However, Ida was more deadly in New Jersey than Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Floyd combined. Nine people died in 2011 during Irene, with most drowning in raging flood waters while trapped inside their cars. Six people drowned during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Shakia Garrett, 33, died Wednesday night trying to rescue friends from a basement apartment complex in Elizabeth. In tears, she called her mother for a haunting final time.

“She called me and told me, ‘I can’t swim, mommy,’” said her mother Sharon Garrett, of Roselle.

Though Murphy did not declare a state of emergency ahead of Ida, the Garden State still had plenty of warning.

Forecasters predicted a 100-year event. As early as Monday, the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly office warned of severe thunderstorms, possible tornadoes in South Jersey and the potential for major flooding along some rivers.

Flash flood alerts, tornado watches and other emergencies were blasted out again Wednesday over smartphones, local media outlets and social media.

During his final chance to warn residents of the impending storm on Wednesday afternoon, Murphy himself urged residents to say inside.

“If you are out and come across high waters, do not go into them — turn around, don’t drown,” he said during a regular COVID-19 media briefing.

But the warnings went unheeded by some. And despite the alerts, most of New Jersey’s deaths were drownings, Murphy said, including several people whose cars were submerged.

Human nature might be at play in ignoring generalized warnings, said Kenneth Sumner, a psychology professor at Montclair State University who studies decision-making.

“We think about it and say, ‘Oh there is a general risk, but it is not specific to me,’” he said. “That is exactly why we fool ourselves.”

In addition, many residents no longer follow traditional news outlets, such as local television and radio, experts say. Heightened political divisions have damaged public trust in government warnings. And the fatigue after 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic has long since taken its toll.

“The pandemic has been going on and on,” said Melissa Finucane, co-director of the RAND Climate Resilience Center. “Our ability to attend to and appropriately react to scientific information is just fatigued.”

But some wonder if a state of emergency declaration, or some formal government warning, would have cut through all the noise — at least for some.

“Never an emergency call. Never like an alert, a message or anything,” Cranford resident Gisela Martinez complained to Murphy on Friday after sustaining flood damage to her home. “We had to figure it out on our own.”

She survived with only property damage. But more than two dozen New Jersey residents lost their lives.

Despite accurate forecasts, Ida was not without surprises, Robinson said. Though predicted rainfall totals were generally accurate in many cases, the rain accumulated more quickly and across a much larger swath of the state than expected, he said. That led to swifter flooding than residents are accustomed to and in areas where drivers might not expect it.

“I don’t want to make it look like I am saying the forecasts were perfect, people should have listened and nothing would have tragically happened,” Robinson said. “That is Pollyannish.”

Still, experts could see the troubling warning signs as the storm arrived, Robinson said. He tracked the rainfall through gauges in the eastern part of the state and quickly realized the severity of the storm, he said.

Robinson declined to weigh in on whether Murphy waited too long to declare a state of emergency, saying he doesn’t know what information the governor had or when he had it.

“There was a little bit of a heads up to know that this was really unfolding of a large magnitude,” he said. “But you still didn’t know exactly how things would evolve over the course of early and mid-evening.”

Regardless, experts say it’s hard to predict how effective a state of emergency would have been.

What many drivers relied on was probably not a warning on their phone — something we’ve all seen time and again — but prior life experience, experts said.

“You think back in mind to recent examples that you have available to you of the last time it was flooding — ‘I drove through a puddle. It was fine,’” Finucane said. “That (decision-making) is great much of the time, but it can lead you astray and give you the wrong answers, which can really lead to disastrous consequences.”

Equally important to communicating warnings to residents is making sure they are educated about how to react to the information, experts said.

“I hope people learn now that when your phone buzzes and it says there is a flash flood warning, if you are in your car, get to higher ground immediately,” Robinson said. “Because you don’t know what is going to lie ahead.”

Staff writer Matt Arco contributed to this report.

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