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Relief, then new danger as power is restored in Sandy-struck Hoboken

November 05, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • An electrical worker fixes wiring at a substation in Hoboken, N.J., as surrounding neighborhoods remain without power because of damage caused by Sandy.
An electrical worker fixes wiring at a substation in Hoboken, N.J., as surrounding… (John Minchillo / Associated…)

The return of electricity to nearly all of flood-damaged Hoboken, N.J.,  on Monday prompted a new round of emergency calls as residents powered up their homes only to realize a new set of fears.

Firefighters responded to numerous carbon monoxide scares, calls to check on fuel oil seeping up through heating vents, calls when residents smelled smoke. With so much flood damage to homes and buildings, fire officials advised residents to have licensed electricians inspect their homes before  turning the power back on “to ensure that the service to their home is secure.”

“Calls are coming in constantly due to the powering up all over town,” said Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm.

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No major fire-related injuries have been reported among residents or firefighters, he said.

The calls for help have been relentless since the onset of the storm that also flooded three of the city’s four fire stations. The department’s facilities were also in a state of recovery as electricians and gas company workers rushed to make repairs. Blohm said he hoped that by Tuesday workers could sanitize the stations inundated with floodwaters carrying raw sewage.

But even without their stations, about 30 firefighters — with the help of a borrowed rig from a neighboring town — responded.

Residents in a four-story apartment building along Adams Street, site of the some of the worst flooding, smelled smoke Monday soon after their power was restored. Firefighters traced the smell to the basement and tried to reach the landlord.

"I'm not nervous -- just a little bit worried about the power," said Richie Vaisa, 42, who called in the report.   "You smell that? Smoke. Maybe the wires are burning."

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As he waited, Vanessa Cummins walked up to the firefighters and asked if they could check her apartment building around the corner above Albini Pharmacy. Cummins, 34, a mother of five, also just got power back, and also suddenly smelled smoke downstairs near the pharmacy, where an alarm was sounding.

"The water had shorted it," she said.

As of Monday morning, about 10,000 electrical meters were still down across town, Blohm said, but the number was rapidly dwindling. The city has provided diesel fuel to contractors who volunteered to come help flood victims.

The city was also in the process of setting up a task force of electricians to deal with potential problems, Blohm said.

“This is salt water, so there may not be any damage initially, but it's corrosive,” he said.

He said the local gas company expected to remove hundreds of gas meters because of flood damage across town.

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The mayor has been focused in the last 36 hours on restoring power to the city's public housing complex,  near two power stations that flooded.

“People have been without power for a week and they're stressed,” he said. “It's going to be a long time before the residents and the business owners of Hoboken are 100% back.”

Blohm said he is encouraged by the piles of soggy debris piling in front of scores of Adams Street houses and surrounding streets, where generators hummed and bright orange heavy-duty extension cords dangled from windows.

“A good sign,” he said, because “it means people are back in their homes, ripping stuff out.”

Across the street from Vaisa, Salvatore Picinich, 35, revved up a generator at his mother’s rented house, where the basement was inundated by about 5 feet of water.

"Everyone's coming today -- the plumber, the electrician," he said. "I feel it should be safe. We'll see what happens I guess. We're not going to flip the switches. The main circuit breaker is off right now. The electrician is going to come and change out all the circuits and dry it out. Hopefully then the power comes back and these people can have heat."

Farther down Adams, where water rose even higher, the street was lined with flooded cars. An alarm sounded in a garage, the bottom half of the door collapsed and waterlogged. No one appeared to be responding.

A few doors down, George Quizhpi, 59, was trying to figure out how to survive with power and a gas stove, but not heat, and a flooded house and car.

But the Ecuadorean immigrant, who has lived in this building for 40 years, was most worried because his own car was flooded and now he can’t get to work Jersey City, where he drives a cab.

"I don't have transportation. I need to work. I can’t live without this car," he said, beginning to cry. He felt helpless. His wife walked nine blocks to work Monday at a Hoboken day care.

"We can't do anything because we don't have money," he said. "So we have to trust God will take care of us."

Around the corner, contractor Shallan Haddad had a crew clearing out houses.

"We've been pumping out basements, helping people get hot water turned back on," said Haddad, who runs Haddad Plumbing and Heating based in Newark, which saw far less storm damage, he said. They've been fixing 10 to 15 houses a day, he said, "as many as we can get to."

He said it can be dangerous if residents try to turn their power back on themselves after such severe flooding.

"We always tell them leave the power off until you check and make sure it's dried out. You could have water in the breaker boxes," he said.

Garbage trucks and school buses passed by, but life was far from normal. Many businesses remained flooded and shuttered.


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