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South Orange Debates Need for New Emergency Shelter Space

Amy Kiste Nyberg

Monday, February 3, 2014 • 9:27pm

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Residents who must leave their homes due to prolonged power outages, flooding or other emergencies can take shelter in one of two designated sites in South Orange, the Baird Center or the South Orange Public Library.

The Board of Trustees debated whether the village needs another shelter site at a recent meeting after village President Alex Torpey, who also serves as the Office of Emergency Management coordinator, submitted a nine-page memo to the board for its review. It is also on the agenda for the Feb. 4 Public Safety Committee meeting.

Shelter space could be added to the new South Orange Rescue Squad building, which will be constructed next to the fire department on Sloan Street. The board is considering four options: a two-bay facility with and without a second story that could be used as an emergency shelter, and a three-bay option with and without a second story.

The board has discussed the plans in closed session but has not made public yet the final estimates for the project. Torpey, however, said that adding the second story, which could accommodate between 40 and 60 individuals depending on the final plans, would only add about 10 percent to the cost of the project.

The new space could be used not only as a shelter, but as a staging area in case of a larger-scale or regional emergency, according to Torpey. “There aren’t other municipal spaces that fit the bill,” he said.

Trustee Walter Clarke wanted to know how many individuals actually would need such a shelter. “That’s one pretty important question,” he said. “Given the relatively limited number of people we have to shelter, can we basically beef up the Baird Center and have the rollover go to the middle school?”

During recent emergencies, Trustee Sheena Collum noted, “people were very aware that we were operating a shelter but opted not to use (it) … they wanted power and warmth.”

She said the squad room would accommodate less than 1 percent of South Orange’s population. “That need has to be based on the demand and the overall cost,” she said.

According to the memo, using schools would not be an option when school is in session. In addition, there is almost no backup power in the school buildings in South Orange. These are also the problems with using the municipal library as a sheltering space, the memo stated.

“I’m not comfortable with any of the options that have been presented,” Trustee Mark Rosner said. He suggested that since the village now owns the South Orange Performing Arts Center, the SOPAC loft should be considered as a possible sheltering space.

Torpey said, “The question is: Do we need to provide better sheltering space for South Orange. If the answer is yes, this is going to be the only option that we’re going to have in the next decade.”

The current Rescue Squad facility will be torn down to make way for a retail-apartment complex at Third and Valley streets. The developer is contributing up to $1.1 million for the new Rescue Squad building as part of the development agreement. Read the story here.  

However, at a meeting Oct. 17, village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr. reported that estimates were “much, much, much higher than we were anticipating.” He said that costs “were significantly out of the budget we have established.”

Trustee Deborah Davis Ford recommended that the matter be referred to the Public Safety Committee. The committee meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 4 in order to accommodate her recommendation. The committee meeting is scheduled to be held on the third floor of 76 South Orange Ave., beginning at 6:30 p.m.

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