N.J. Fire Raises Safety Questions For Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — Investigators announced this week the massive fire that devastated a large section of the boardwalk in coastal New Jersey was caused by aging, faulty wiring compromised by saltwater and sand during last fall’s Super Storm Sandy, prompting questions about whether a similar situation could possibly occur in Ocean City.
Last Thursday, a massive fire began under a couple of old businesses on the boardwalk in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights in New Jersey and the wind-swept flames destroyed around 50 businesses and other structures before the blaze was brought under control. The fire occurred in the New Jersey resort towns still slowly recovering from Super Storm Sandy last October, and this week it was learned the storm ironically had a hand in the latest destruction.
Ocean County, N.J. prosecutor Joseph Coronato on Tuesday announced the multi-agency Fire Investigation Task Force determined the massive fire was caused by aging wiring compromised by saltwater and sand during Sandy under the ice cream parlor and candy store where it originated. Coronato called it a cautionary tale and urged business owners and homeowners in those communities and others affected by the storm to have their electric systems inspected.
“Scene examination preserved and isolated the electrical system servicing the originating structures and the team is in complete consensus that a failure of energized electrical equipment and wiring located under the boardwalk and sub floor of the originating structures compromised by Sandy flood waters contributed to the fire,” Coronato said in a statement this week. “We strongly recommend to all Sandy-effected business and homeowners that they take measures to have any flood-submerged electrical systems inspected and replaced if necessary.”
Clearly, Ocean City and Delaware beach resorts did not see the extensive flooding during Sandy that beach resorts to the north did during the storm, but the ominous report released this week raised questions about the safeguards in place in Ocean City. Floodwaters did inundate some low-lying areas in Ocean City during Sandy and other storms in recent years, raising the possibility there could be some concerns under aging structures in the downtown area.
Ocean City officials this week said there are safeguards in place to ensure a similar situation does not occur here.
“In any post-storm situation, the various city departments do damage assessments and make lists of buildings compromised by flooding,” said Ocean City Deputy Chief Fire Marshal David Hartley this week. “They do assessments of everything for potential damages to electrical systems to structural damages in any post-storm situation. Clearly, saltwater and electricity don’t mix, so it’s a big concern for us.”
Hartley said there are back-up safeguards in place to ensure inspections are completed following major storm events. As previously mentioned, the city does its own inspections of buildings compromised during storm events and private property owners also have inspections done as part of the insurance claim process.
“It’s not a failsafe system, but we’re pretty confident the overlapping inspection process would find any problems,” he said. “When property owners file a claim, insurance companies come in and do their own inspections. They have to in order to be able to pull permits for repair work.”
As far as the Boardwalk itself, Ocean City Engineer Terry McGean said this week all of the wiring under and around the structure was replaced during the extensive renovation project carried out over the last two years.
“We replaced all the wiring with new conduits as part of the reconstruction project the last two years from 4th Street to 15th Street,” he said. “The rest was replaced when we rebuilt the south end. Any time someone thinks wiring might have been submerged in saltwater, they should have an electrician check it.”