WHITESBORO – Dozens of county locals, officials, and volunteers gathered at the Martin Luther King Community Center, in Whitesboro, July 13, to discuss natural disasters and the ways that Cape May County is prepared to respond when catastrophe strikes.
Attendees were at the gathering, the first of its kind since the Covid pandemic, to learn about annual disaster preparations that take place across government and nonprofit agencies before hurricane season each year.
The scenarios brought up in the initial lecture – what to do if your house floods, how to respond to winds so strong that transportation becomes difficult, where to gather if roads become inaccessible – were more than hypothetical to much of the audience.
A man chimed in from the back of the bleachers: “There are probably a number of people here old enough to remember the storm of 1962.”
That storm, the “Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962,” was one of the most destructive storms to ever impact America’s eastern coast.
Cape May County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Pagliughi said the storm destroyed his home in Avalon.
Storms can’t be stopped, but their consequences can be mitigated, and disaster preparation has come a long way since the Ash Wednesday Storm, or even since Hurricane Sandy.
For starters, Cape May County now has four designated emergency shelters spread across the county – Martin Luther King Community Center, in Whitesboro; Upper Township Primary School, in Marmora; Upper Township Middle School, in Petersburg; and Woodbine Developmental Center, in Woodbine.
John Pauley, a fire policeman with the Avalon Fire Department, said Hurricane Sandy forced Avalon locals to shelter in place at Cumberland County College, now Rowan College of South Jersey Cumberland Campus, due to the lack of a local shelter that could meet their needs.
“Shelters, in times of real turmoil, are like putting up a little city,” he told the Herald.
During a time of crisis, a flurry of different organizations coordinate to help people to safety. Cape May County’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) would partner with law enforcement to bring stranded locals to safe shelters.
Jim Eden, an American Red Cross volunteer, said he works with county officials each year to “make sure we have the people, supplies, ambulances, and law enforcement ready to go.”
The American Red Cross helps with food at those four emergency shelters, and Cape May County’s Department of Health trains a volunteer force year-round to staff shelters during emergencies.
Liberty Kocis, who helps coordinate the volunteers, compared the volunteers to reserves in the American military. Most of the time, the volunteers aren’t working, but they are trained and ready to help at a moment’s notice.
“Volunteers do a lot of things,” Kocis said. “They help people get their medications in times of emergency; they help direct people at the shelters. We are always looking for more volunteers. During an emergency, anyone is a help.”
Hundreds of people work tirelessly to help when disaster strikes, but if the county’s resources are not enough, they are prepared to team up with state and federal agencies to help those in need.
The tone of the evening, despite the grim content, was cheerful. Those who attended the two-hour program were excited to meet Red Cross volunteers and had a flurry of questions for the county officials present.
Kocis, who helped organize the night, said she was pleased with the turnout.
“I hope more people will come to these in the future, but for our first time back, this is a good turnout,” she said.
These presentation days are crucial for locals to understand the protocol. The bottom line, stressed by nearly every official present, was that Cape May County is more ready for natural disasters than it has ever been.
Contact the author, Collin Hall, at email@example.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 156.