By TERRY MORAN, HOWARD PRICE and TERI WHITCRAFT
On the long and slender stretch of New Jersey barrier beaches that includes Brick Township, the hiss of gas seems to be everywhere. And between gas fires and the ocean surge, dozens of homes have been destroyed – 60 in Brick Township alone.
The threat from gas is widespread and the risk of further fire and explosion continues along this devastated coastline where many homes were lifted from foundations and their gas lines ruptured. And officials say it will continue until flames are brought under control and utilities are able to turn off the main gas line serving the two barrier islands on this stretch.
Along a stretch of barrier island in Brick Township where the gas lines continue to burn, they create a painful image that puts a lens onto a broader issue facing communities along this sandy coast that include Seaside Heights, Ortley, Ortley Beach and Lavalette.
In Brick Township, fire companies were standing by as officials awaited utility workers who would burn off and turn off the gas. While some officials downplayed the risk from fire, others offered a different estimate of the gas risk.
“We have one main gas line that goes over to the island. We are trying to cut the main line to cut it for the [barrier] islands,” said Rich Peterson of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. “The utility is doing that. [There is a] possibility of more explosions. We are working closely with New Jersey Natural Gas to cut those lines. But the gas is just one hazard. Lots of dangerous material, debris.”
In Brick Township, the area where the homes were destroyed had finally become accessible and so far 70 people have been rescued and there are no reports of fatalities as yet.
Overall, says Peterson, more than 500 have been rescued from the barrier islands.
“Our biggest concern is, we want to get everyone out of the barrier islands. People are still there. We’ve gotten 500 people from two barrier islands. We have crews out there, zodiac boats, National Guard Blackhawk helicopters. ”
In addition to turning off the gas, which will be done by workers from N.J. Natural Gas, the plan now is to secure the area with police and the National Guard and start to clean up as soon as it is safe.
This afternoon, only 12 gas trucks have been spotted. There are no fleets, just a team here and there.
And as residents and rescue workers wait, the question is: Does the risk of more explosions and more fires grow?