EATONTOWN, N.J -- When Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi was promoted to Director of Cape May County’s Emergency Management Communications Center in August 2013, he found himself with two things: another job title, and a problem that most people wouldn’t expect a county surrounded by open water on three sides to have.
“There were no shelters in the county before I took over,” he said.
Pagliughi, who retired from an engineering company as the national industry manager, environmental division, went to work finding space and was able to secure four shelters in two months. Then Hurricane Sandy struck the New Jersey shore.
“We sheltered over 700 people,” he said.
Pagliughi was born in Vineland and has lived in Avalon since 1974. He was first elected to Avalon’s City Council in 1987 before becoming mayor in 1991. He is also the head of Avalon’s Office of Emergency Management, a role he assumed in 2001, making him very familiar with the unique difficulties Cape May County’s geography and demographics represent.
The county is a narrow peninsula with barrier islands, which makes evacuating people more of a challenge.
“We had an ice storm in 2006, and we had over 150 people who wouldn’t evacuate the barrier islands because they didn’t want to leave their pets behind,” he said.
That inspired one of his more ambitious undertakings before Sandy hit. He purchased a 52-foot trailer and had it converted into a mobile animal shelter, which housed 120 pets during the storm, including several birds and a snake. The trailer, which had heat, hot water and food storage for the animals, was parked next to a Red Cross shelter. The trailer cost Avalon $22,000. The borough received $24,000 in donations to pay for it. Cape May County has also purchased two trailers and is converting a third with the help of Cape May County Technical High School students who have made it their class project.
As Sandy made its way toward New Jersey, Pagliughi moved quickly to take preventive measures and prepare for the storm’s aftermath. He secured a debris cleanup contract and a reconstruction contract to repair any damage to government buildings the storm would cause. With those arrangements in place, debris was cleared out of Avalon in three days.
He also created an emergency website for Avalon that integrated reverse 911, allowing residents and other observers to get important, updated information during Hurricane Sandy, as well as photos and live video. During the storm’s pass across New Jersey, the site got 2.4 million hits.
He is now working on a similar site for Cape May County. “People thrive on information,” he said. “The more they have, the better.”
Some of the problems that arose during the storm proved to be far easier to solve than others. When the county’s shelters ran low on food, the Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Cape May Court House prepared 2,300 meals in two days and delivered them via the county’s fare-free bus network.
And even though Cape May County escaped the devastation that Sandy inflicted on other areas of New Jersey, three days passed before the state lifted the evacuation order for the county, causing problems for residents trying to re-enter the county and check on their homes and creating traffic issues when they were allowed to return. Pagliughi believes that municipal OEMs should be able to determine the safety of their own towns.
Pagliughi is already anticipating dealing with future incidents. Last year, the New Jersey National Guard sent four high-wheeled trucks to Cape May County to help with rescue and evacuations. However, a change in Guard policy means the New Jersey Guard will no longer deploy high-wheeled vehicles before a disaster. To compensate, Pagliughi went through the Army Surplus Program and bought 22 of the five-ton trucks, setting six aside as the county fleet and giving the rest to county municipalities.
He knows the county still needs more shelter space. “There’s not a lot of room here to build,” he said.
He has had to learn emergency management on the job, and each incident has added to his understanding of the processes involved in dealing with a disaster.
“We’ve had, I think, 10 disaster declarations since I took over” as the head of Avalon’s OEM, Pagliughi said. “We know the programs. We know how to get reimbursed.”
With Pagliughi’s new-found experience combined with his positions of authority and knowledge of the area, Cape May County can expect to be prepared when the next disaster strikes.
FEMA's mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.