Long Beach Township keeps water running after Sandy

LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N. J. – When Super Storm Sandy hit Long Beach Township in October, the small community was forced to deal with an incredible disaster.

“The first high tide was about three feet of water,” explained Michael Clark, an Assistant Water Plant Operations Specialist. “At that time we were still in pretty decent shape.”

The tide receded, though it had already knocked out power on the island. The township operates multiple water plants to supply clean drinking water to over 3,000 residents along the island. Those plants had natural gas generators that allowed them to remain operational after losing power.

Except the storm was only beginning.

“The second high tide was over four feet,” Clark said. “After that, it got pretty crazy.”

With Sandy approaching shore, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie issued a mandatory evacuation on October 28. With water and sewer staff facing evacuation, the township began to shut down all but two of its water plants. The Long Beach Township is located on Long Beach Island, a barrier island with ocean on one side and a bay on the other. A dune system covering roughly 18 miles of shore was all that protected the island from the on-coming storm.

“It destroyed the dune system, except for a short stretch where the Army Corps of Engineers had done some work,” Clark said.

The impact on the water systems was devastating.

“Our ocean-front distribution system was destroyed,” Clark said. “The storm pulled water mains out of the ground and tore them apart; it shredded fire hydrants.

“We had one well that went underwater and was contaminated by saltwater intrusion.”

Several buildings were damaged, though they remained standing, they were riddled with stress fractures and will have to be replaced or refurbished in the future.

The island was covered in sand and salt water, in some places up to five feet deep. Movement on the island was severely restricted, and many times the water and sewer crews had the only equipment that could move. The water and sand was so deep that even bulldozers struggled to make it through.

“We’d get calls at the police station that someone was trapped,” Clark said. “We’d drive our front-end loaders up to the front door and the people would ride in the scoop back to the station where the Army could evacuate them.”

“We chuckle about it now, but it was pretty nerve-wracking at the time.”

The crew began work immediately assessing and repairing the tangled water mains and replacing the hundreds of damaged services throughout the island.

“We were going house-to-house,” Clark explained. “There was water in a lot of crawl spaces and lots of downed power lines.”

The situation was so dangerous that several crew were electrocuted, though none seriously. “It was very dangerous, but thank God everyone made it home every day,” Clark said.

Roughly 30 Public Works and Water and Sewer employees worked for 35 straight days, most 12-20 hour days, to bring the system back on-line.

“Several of us started rewiring electrical to all the buildings,” Clark said.

Many of the buildings at the township’s water plants were constructed in the 1950’s and their electrical wiring was installed under the floor, too low to survive the storm surge.

Soon after the relief effort began, the island’s natural gas service had to be cut. Severe damage to the island’s natural gas lines created another potential hazard. Cutting off that service, though, eliminated the township’s natural gas generators.

The New Jersey Water Association helped located portable diesel generators for the plants when gas service to the island had to be cut, stopping the townships natural gas generators.

“We were able to help them get portable, diesel generators,” said NJWA Executive Director Rick Howlett.

“They were a big help,” Clark said.

NJWA Circuit Rider Dave Leister also helped work on compliance issues with the system, and helped get the two-week boil order lifted. The association, a member of the National Rural Water Association, also provided manpower, assisted in coordinating with state agencies, and even recreating critical paperwork for the utility.

“A lot of our paperwork was stored in filing cabinets,” Clark explained. “The storm dumped them upside down and the paperwork ended up destroyed or washed out into the ocean.”

“They were a big help coordinating with the state and the DEP, doing the legwork that allowed us to stay out in the field,” Clark added. “We would call them with a problem, and within a few minutes they would come back with a solution that would have taken one of our guys hours to organize.”

Now, the utility is mostly back to operations. There are a few connections that have to be repaired and the township is making plans for future repairs to damaged buildings.

“We just try to make each day a little better than the last day,” Clark said.