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Update (11:37 A.M): Township Orders Mandatory Flood Zone Evacuation

Evacuation to start at Noon Saturday.

Township officials have ordered the mandatory evacuation of the township's flood zone starting at noon on Saturday in anticipation of flooding from Hurricane Irene.

Police Chief Eric Mason and Mayor Dan Aschenbach announced the evacuation shortly after 9 a.m. on Saturday saying the township is likely to receive 10 inches of rain from the hurricane which is currently barreling toward the northeast.

"Our concern is the Rahway River," Mason said. "In anticipation of the Rahway River breaching the dikes, we are asking residents to remove themselves from the area."

Mason said that the high rain, along with sustained winds of 50 MPH and higher will cause a flooding condition in the community. He said that residents should leave for high ground before the hurricane arrives. Aschenbach said a preliminary report from the Army Corps of Engineers about the township's flood preparation system shows that there are areas of concerns in the dikes surrounding the Rahway River.

The evacuation will continue through 8 p.m. on Saturday, when the first severe parts of the hurricane are expected to reach Union County. Aschenbach said that an emergency shelter has been set up at the Community Center on Walnut Avenue next to the library for residents to stay if they cannot make alternate arrangements. The mayor said he expects most residents to stay with friends and family or in local hotels.

Aschenbach said the evacuation center was moved to the Community Center from its prior location at Orange Avenue School due to changes in Red Cross assistance in emergencies. He said that Red Cross funding cuts have changed the response from a township one to a regional one and the Red Cross will be operating a regional evacuation shelter in Clark. Aschenbach also indicated that the Board of Education has approved opening school parking lots for residents to park their cars overnight.

Township officials trumpeted the evacuation during a Saturday morning meeting with U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon County, saying that Cranford is the first municipality in Union County to call for a mandatory evacuation. Mason and Aschenbach also said that this is the first time the township has ordered a mandatory evacuation prior to a storm's start. 

Aschenbach said that while township emergency management officials have been monitoring the storm since Wednesday a final decision on an evacuation was not made until a meeting on Saturday morning. Patch has learned the possibility of a mandatory evacuation was being discussed by township emergency management officials as early as Friday afternoon, but was not disclosed in communications from the township.

Aschenbach did not say why information about a potential evacuation was not disclosed prior to Saturday morning.

"It was getting a better understanding," Aschenbach said in an interview with Patch on Saturday.

The mayor stressed that a final decision was not made until Saturday morning.

"It was about what developments occurred last night and earring on the side of caution," he said.

Mason said that the high winds will make it tough for emergency responders to access the flood zone during portions of the storm, making the early evacuation a necessity. He noted that the Rahway River typically floods quickly, with the waters receding quickly. The police chief did not unveil a time frame for flood waters to appear in the township.

Mason said that township officials ordered the early evacuation due to the anticipated high winds and heavy rains, along with saturated ground and the dike issue. In a normal "rain event," the chief said, the township is able to monitor the river to determine when it might crest. The same rules don't apply in a hurricane.

"This event is significantly different. Out first concern is public safety," Mason said, adding that officials are also concerned with the safety of the emergency workers who will be deployed if residents become stranded or trapped by flood waters.

Mason also said this week's earthquake could have had an impact on the township's underground infrastructure, which he said township officials did not know the details of. Cranford is currently the only municipality in Union County to have ordered a mandatory evacuation due to Hurricane Irene.

"We're not the Delaware or the Passaic river," Township Engineer Richard Marsden said while meeting with the congressman. "We don't have a lot of lag time. This river will breach and flood and then it will be gone a day later. This is just 31 acres, but that 31 acres gets here in 24 hours."

Aschenbach said the dike issue, which became known to him earlier this week comes as the Army Corps of Engineers readies a final report on the condition of the township's flood prevention system for the end of September of the beginning of October. The mayor said the preliminary report shows several areas where the dikes have unstable soil and could fail in the event of a high water and heavy rain event.

Aschenbach said that he did not have the exact locations of unstable areas of the dike readily available, but noted that one cause of concern was a portion of the dike just before the intersection of Riverside Drive and Claremont Place. He said the information was obtained from the approximately 12 study points the Corps has done around the township.

Aschenbach said that he and other township officials had a meeting previously scheduled for next month with federal officials in Manhattan to discuss the flood study, which he said could be moved up. He said the study would be used to determine the possibility of obtaining additional federal funds for future stages of the township's flood prevention project, which has been ongoing since the 1999 Hurricane Floyd flood.

Hurricane informational broadcasts on TV-35 prior to Saturday morning's announcement did not disclose that an evacuation order was being discussed. The broadcasts focused instead on general information - including about the dangers of flood waters and noting the township has had flooding in past years. Friday afternoon's broadcast also included TV-35 Director Ed Davenport musing about the safety of fences in the township due to unsecured patio furniture.

Other local government officials in the metro area including Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy announced earlier this week that residents of coastal areas should be prepared to evacuate, prior to a formal decision being made. Gov. Chris Christie started evacuation warnings for coastal New Jersey earlier this week.

Mason and Aschenbach told Lance that the evacuation decision is being communicated to residents through TV-35, the township's website, Facebook, Twitter and the Nextel emergency text message alert system. In addition, Lance aide Amanda Woloshon told township officials that the congressman's office would send out the order to Cranford residents on Lance's email distribution list.

The township's last flood was in March 2010, which including several inches of water in streets and an evacuation. The last severe flooding event was the Tax Day flood of 2007, which included water in homes. The 1999 Hurricane Floyd flood sent several neighborhoods fleeing for shelter as several feet of water inundated homes. The township also experienced flooding incidents in 1992, 1996 and 1997.

The 1992 was the township's first flood since the 1970s. The 1999 flood was the catalyst for the township's flood prevention program, which included the construction of the township's flood pumping system on Riverside Drive and changes to the township's storm sewer system.

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