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Sandy-Weary Hoboken Residents Criticize City Over Evacuation Warnings

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SANDY HOBOKEN
Hoboken, N.J. evacuees brave waist-high waters to escape flooded neighborhoods. | Chris Kirkham

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Frank Quiroz and Idania Roman slogged through a waist-high mix of Hudson River water, sewage and gasoline Wednesday afternoon, hoisting bags full of tennis shoes and dry clothes on a three-mile trek to find family in Jersey City.

The pair had been waiting since Tuesday for the waters to recede, but after extinguishing an electrical fire in their basement and losing all communication with the outside world, they said they couldn’t wait any longer to escape.

“Last year for Irene, they were much more worried than this time,” Roman said of the warnings coming from government officials in Hoboken. “The warnings basically sucked.”

As storm-weary residents of this half-flooded town along the Hudson River slogged through floodwaters or were ferried to dry land by National Guard troops, many criticized Hoboken city officials for not adequately stressing the need to get out.

Before Hurricane Irene last year, city officials called a mandatory evacuation of all residents in ground-floor units. In advance of Hurricane Sandy this past weekend, city officials initially announced a voluntary evacuation for residents on the ground floor, then instituted a mandatory evacuation later Sunday afternoon, leading some to criticize mixed messaging about the dangers.

“With Irene, they put it in our faces, they were like, ‘This is gonna happen,’” said Francesca Ciarra, who was sitting in a local Catholic Church to stay warm on Wednesday, the first day she was able to leave her home after the flooding.

Her friend Alex Acosta, who lives on another one of the severely flooded streets on the west side of town, said she would have fled far away if the message had been communicated more directly.

“I feel like the storm was way more intense than how they were describing it,” Acosta said. “We over-prepared last time. This time, they underprepared.”

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer argued that the city did all it possibly could to urge residents to prepare and evacuate in advance of the storm, sending out press releases, tweets and distributing fliers across town in English and Spanish.

“We try to reach our residents in as many ways as possible,” Zimmer said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “I feel like we tried as hard as we could, and there’s always more that we could do. So that’s why were coming in with the resources now to make sure that those who need us, we can try to reach them.”

National Guard troops have been ferrying residents trapped inside buildings on the city’s many flooded streets all day Wednesday. Zimmer said she did not have a count of how many had been evacuated, but she estimated that more than 20,000 were in buildings along flooded streets as of early Wednesday.

Water remained deep in many low-lying sections of downtown closest to the Hudson River. Dry parts of the city resembled a ghost town, with mostly shuttered storefronts. The acrid stench of gasoline was in the air, even in parts of town where the waters had receded.

“Hoboken stinks,” a boy cried from a stroller.

“Hoboken stinks right now, you’re right,” his father said calmly, cracking a smile.

Bleary-eyed residents unloading from National Guard trucks near City Hall were overjoyed to be done with the cabin fever of the past two days. Kristen Gleim was essentially stuck on the 14th floor of her apartment building until National Guard troops arrived Wednesday at about 3 p.m. Fetid waters surrounded the building, and even venturing down to the lobby meant contending with noxious fumes from outside.

She said she wishes the mandatory evacuation had been extended to everyone in the flood-prone areas, not just ground-floor residents. “They should have made it mandatory, or at least publicized it better,” she said.

Melissa and David Pittard evacuated from their Hoboken apartment building Wednesday evening amid structural concerns: Standing floodwater in the basement was thought to be contributing to problems with the building's foundation. David Pittard thought the city's warnings were adequate given the circumstances, but he said he wishes Hoboken had insituted a zoned evacuation system such as that in New York City.

"I think if they were to create a better awareness of the flood risks in each neighborhood, it would have been a lot easier," Pittard said.

His wife Melissa added, "I just don't think anybody thought it would be as bad as it was."

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