Five coach buses and five vans rolled into the at 10 a.m. Saturday, delivering 367 evacuees from South Jersey to the last destination of a 26-hour journey.
The fragile and vulnerable residents of Atlantic City and Pleasantville boarded their buses at 8 a.m. Friday, and hit three destinations before Mennen. Many are from nursing homes, according to Joan Lyons, a Pleasantville resident who helped sign-in the evacuees at the arena.
The population was quickly deemed one of special needs by Scott Digiralomo, the Morris County director of the Department of Law and Public Safety and the coordinator of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Saturday night, Red Cross staff members were still working to define the needs of these people—many of them elderly, with walkers, canes and, in some cases, oxygen tanks.
“It’s a really fluid situation,” Digiralomo said. “We wanted to make sure immediate needs were met.”
Cots had been set up with fresh bedding to house the shelter residents until they could be transported back to Atlantic City, once Hurricane Irene has gone out to sea. To feed them, 1,500 meals were ordered from Subway, Digiralomo said. Sanitation supplies were being commandeered. Some volunteers bought bottled water with their own credit cards.
On hand were law enforcement officers from the Morris County Park Police, the Morris County Sheriff’s Office and the New Jersey State Police.
Digiralomo said the state put out a request yesterday seeking shelter for the evacuees, who had stories to tell once they got comfortable.
Delores Canada from Pleasantville said the ordeal made her “angry."
"Each place was worse than the one before,” she said.
According to Lyons, the buses first took the evacuees to St. Augustine’s Prep School in Richland, then to the Stockton College gymnasium, and then the Sun Center Arena in Trenton. Lyons said at least one shelter could not handle the nearly 400 people while others were not preperly equipped.
The arrival at Mennen Arena was heartwarming, Canada said.
“When we got here, I felt so welcome. She greeted us at the door,” Canada said, gesturing toward Mary-Michael Levitt, director of the Riverview Counseling Center in Hackettstown.
Levitt is the on-site designated mental health supervisor for the American Red Cross.
“We have a very high special needs population here,” said Levitt, who has worked in disaster relief since 9/11 and was on-location for the Joplin, Mo., tornado disaster. “We are very, very busy.”
Triage was handled by staff from St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville, she added.
This is the first time the Mennen Arena has been used as a shelter, Digiralomo said, and it's the first time Morris County has hosted an out-of-county population. Should local residents require shelter, they will be housed at .
The cots are brand new, purchased with Homeland Security money—some of the 1,500 such cots now in Morris County.
“If this would have happened last year, we would not have been able to do this,” Digiralomo said.
County officials, the Morris Minutemen, the Red Cross and law enforcement were still on hand late Saturday to make sure the situation goes smoothly.
“They sent them to the right place,” said Morris County Sheriff Ed Rochford. “We’ll take care of them.”