Editor's Note: This article was updated on Sunday to reflect Hightstown Borough's lowering of Peddie Lake.
No one knows for sure whether Hurricane Sandy will hit New Jersey at full force early next week.
But regardless of whether this “Frankenstorm” is a serious threat or not, East Windsor, Hightstown, and Cranbury officials and residents are not taking any chances.
“We are ready,” said Hightstown Mayor Steven Kirson. “We have taken precautions to minimize the effect of the storm.”
Kirson said the borough has learned from last year’s event, and this year they have been preparing for the storm since early this week.
Borough Administrator Mike Theokas said that while he was not borough administrator when Hurricane Irene hit last year, he believes the borough is much more prepared this time around.
“At this point, we certainly have to prepare for the most severe scenario and plan that way,” Theokas said. “And we certainly learned from our experience last year.”
In the past few days, the borough has worked to ensure essential services, like water and sewage facilities, are the top priority, Theokas said.
“If we can keep the water out and keep the water running–and the same thing with the sewer plant–we can then maintain those services to the community, which will ease the strain of the catastrophe, and we can focus in on whatever else needs to be done,” Kirson said.
About 70 students from Peddie School marched to Hightstown’s Public Works Building around 4 p.m. Friday to fill sandbags for the borough.
Pat Clements, an English Teacher and football coach at the School, said his wife Melanie Clements, Assistant Head for Student Life, sent an email that morning to the school community asking for help to build some sandbags, and the project took off quickly from there.
Several sports teams served the first part of their practice shoveling sand into bags.
“This is our community,” Pat Clements said.
“We love it!” interjected a passing-by student.
Pat Clements said the students knew where to go, since they had been there before.
After Hurricane Irene hit Hightstown almost 14 months ago, Peddie School students helped save Borough Hall records, as well as clean up Tavern on the Lake’s furniture and the former Molto Bene storefront, which now houses Roasting Post Coffee.
“It’s what people do,” Clements said. “If someone needs help, you say, ‘sure.’ It’s that simple.”
Theokas said the sandbags will be used primarily to block gaps in barricades around the Water Treatment Plant.
The sandbags will additionally be used to block gaps around the Public Works building doors, around the Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, and will additionally be distributed to downtown business owners.
Kirson said borough officials were out early Friday morning speaking with business owners and ensuring they had contingency plans in place.
Fran Palumbo, Tavern on the Lake owner, said she has no plans to close the Tavern as of yet, but considering the damage sustained last year, she is a little worried.
“Water is just something you can’t stop,” she said.
“We can fight our battles, but you’re not fighting Mother Nature,” Palumbo said. “Mother Nature’s going to do whatever it wants to do.”
According to Kirson, the borough would monitor Peddie Lake closely, which would be lowered as necessary Sunday evening.
The lake has since been lowered by about 6 feet by 2 p.m. Sunday, and Theokas predicts the lake will be at its lowest capacity by the time the rain starts.
In addition, Theokas said so far the borough has had a tremendous amount of cooperation from Turnpike officials. Last year, snow plows ran up and down Route 33, sending waves of floodwater towards peoples’ homes.
“We’ve received assurances from them that those policies are no longer in effect, which is encouraging,” Theokas said.
He said they have been helpful in providing resources to acquire barricades for the water treatment plant.
“Stuff like this has got to be very much a group effort,” he said.
Theokas also said JCP&L was trimming trees Friday in anticipation of the storm.
The borough has arranged for an Emergency Reception Center to be located in the Hightstown High School Gymnasium. Information for emergency assistance, restrooms and electricity to charge cells phones will be available at this location if needed.
This year, one advantage is having the police department located on higher ground at Lucas Electric, Theokas said. If there are problems downtown, Lucas will be the borough’s command center.
In East Windsor, staff are clearing storm drains and vacuuming leaves in the gutters to reduce the chance of localized street flooding.
Residents are requested not to place any leaves curbside until the storm passes. Additionally, garbage and recycling are not to be placed curbside until the morning of the scheduled pickup. Empty garbage cans should also be removed from the curb after collection is done.
Many big box stores in the area saw an influx of shoppers scooping up the essentials Friday. Stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Shop Rite all saw intervals of empty shelves and waiting customers. So far, the most restocked item has been bottled water.
One Target employee said the store was expecting more water in the near future, between 8 and 10 palettes.
“We learned our lesson from last year,” she said.
Authorities advise people to stock up on such items as water–1 gallon per person per day for a three day period–prepared foods in case of power loss, batteries for radios to keep abreast of storm updates, and flashlights.
At Home Depot, a line of about 20 people waited, some for several hours, for the chance to buy a generator. A Homed Depot representative said they sold out on Thursday and there was no indication how many more generators would be arriving in store, or when.
Many who waited in line wanted to forgo the inconvenience of being without power for possibly 10 days, and one customer said he was desperately afraid to be without power because his son has Leukemia.
William of Millstone said last year he was without power for four days, which was horrible. This time around, he said he needs power in case he has to make any emergency phone calls for his son. Many customers said they had shopped around quite a bit before settling in at Home Depot, and William said he would stay until he got his generator.
The Home Depot representative also suggested people consider purchasing higher-watt car inverters. If power were to go out during the storm, residents could run a small sump pump off of the car’s battery through the inverter.
According to Chief of Police Rickey Varga, Cranbury also began preparations for the possible effects of Sandy.
The township began sandbagging and making preparations around the Brainerd Lake Bridge. The Public Works Department filled sandbags also available for residents to pick up on a first come first served basis.
Additionally, storm drains are being inspected and cleared of leaves and debris and shelters are being stocked with water and food. Emergency services are coordinating action plans along with the Office of Emergency Management and Public Works. Emergency personnel have also been placed on call.
In a letter to the residents from Cranbury Mayor David Cook, he explains that the township will not remove the spillway at Brainerd Lake as initially suggested. According to the letter, the idea was taken to the Middlesex County Engineering Department and the Department of Environmental Protection. They found that the current condition of the bridge would not support demolition of the spillway.
“Having experienced flooding myself, I suggest that residents take precautions for their households as well,” Cook said in his letter.