Expert consider New Jersey's disaster preparedness

Published 16 July 2009

State officials and medical professionals say they are continuously preparing for such events and other disasters.

From Port Newark to the oil tanks along the New Jersey Turnpike, some terrorism experts think the Garden State has plenty of locations that could be targeted. State officials and medical professionals, though, say they are continuously preparing for such events and other disasters. Yesterday, more than 200 of them gathered in Newark to share information on how to prepare for catastrophic events at a symposium held at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

The Star-Ledger’s Sharon Adarlo writes that experts covered a variety of issues, including how to treat injuries from explosions, the elaborate coordination needed before, during and after disasters and the emotional aftermath victims suffer.

The daylong seminar was sponsored by the state EMS Task Force, New Jersey-Israel Commission, and the UMDNJ Center for Continuing and Outreach Education. Held in a large auditorium at the university’s dental school, the symposium included Israeli experts who have had to deal with continuous terrorist attacks.

Leonard Cole, the symposium’s planner and a professor at Rutgers University’s Division of Global Affairs, said Israel has experienced more than 20,000 attacks against its residents from 2000 to 2006. “They have perfected their protection and preventive responses,” said Cole, a bioterrorism expert. “We can learn from that.” As for New Jersey, Cole said officials who oversee disaster preparedness are acutely aware of what may happen in case of an attack or a natural catastrophe. “For many scenarios, we are well prepared,” he said. “But there are also many surprises.”

Dave Gruber, a senior assistant commissioner for the state Health and Senior Services Department, said it’s difficult to quantify how ready New Jersey is in case of an attack or natural disaster. But the state has coordinated with various agencies from law enforcement to public utilities, he said. “There’s no finish line,” Tom Slater, state Health Department spokesman, said of the preparedness level. “Are we prepared? Are we prepared enough? you can’t answer those questions. We are continuing to prepare.”

Late last year, a report by the watchdog group Trust for America’s Health and the Princeton-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found New Jersey is in middle of the pack among states in preparation for disease outbreaks, natural disasters and bioterrorism. The annually issued paper specifically criticized the state Health Department for cutting the public health budget.

Gruber said the report was misleading because the judging criteria changes every year. The state Health Department received high marks in a previous year, he said, adding that budget cuts don’t mean quality programs have been cut.

Henry Cortacans, who oversees the Health Department’s EMS Task Force, said that program coordinates public and private emergency workers. Cortacans showed how EMS workers use the virtual mapping program Google Earth to respond to emergencies.

On an interactive screen, he showed dots on a New Jersey map that locate hospitals, ports and other points of interest. Clicking on the dots opens a separate computer window showing information about each location and the precise game plan in case a disaster strikes, Cortacans said. The detailed plans break down a response by minute intervals. “It’s a great tool for planning and response,” he said.

Clifton Lacy, a former state Health commissioner, presented a panel on the University Center for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response, a 2-year-old institute that operates in New Brunswick and Piscataway.

The center, which Lacy oversees, has received information from Israeli officials on their experiences with terrorism. Lacy said one thing Americans can learn from Israelis is how to cope emotionally with attacks such as restaurant bombings. A week after an attack, an Israeli restaurant would be cleaned up, repaired and open for business, he said. “They go on with life,” he said. “That’s resilience. The United States needs to focus on resilience and be able to bounce back.”