NORTH JERSEY — Residents are wondering who built an enormous tent city, complete with guards, fencing, and gates, at an old General Motors plant site.
Anyone who travelled north on Routes 1 and 9 from Woodbridge to Linden remembers Linden Airport, and the GM plant right across the narrow lanes of the highway.
That plant was torn down in 2008 to make way for a building renaissance that so far hasn’t happened. But in the past few days what has arisen aren’t structures of steel and concrete, but an encampment comprised of wooden poles and white tent bunting.
In the tent city, there are water trucks, vehicles for taking showers, and what looks like a ton of raw materials for more building.
Trying to find out what it’s for, though, is another story.
A nearby resident of the plant had spoken to several of the guards, who swore it was a project of FEMA – the acronym for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But FEMA spokesman Scott Sanders at first denied that his agency had anything to do with the white tent city.
“We might provide provisions, but we don’t run shelters,” Sanders said when asked if the tents were to be used for people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Across the Arthur Kill from Woodbridge, Staten Island residents who were devastated by last week’s hurricane and storm surge are still homeless.
Officials in Staten Island have been looking at several possible sites to house Sandy victims, including reopening an old prison facility, according to the Staten Island Advance.
Sanders pointed to the Red Cross as a source for finding out what the tent city is for; the Red Cross did not return repeated phone calls.
A spokesman in the office of Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said the tents were to be used for utility workers from out of state who had flooded New Jersey after the hurricane hit.
It is true that many utility workers were working in the central New Jersey area to restore power since last week. But in a conference call Friday, the last one of the Hurricane Sandy media updates, PSEG President Ralph LaRossa said that he expected the workers to begin leaving by Sunday or Monday.
The tent city was put up only in the past few days, so it wouldn’t seem to be needed for out-of-state utility workers whose emergency work here was largely completed.
The Union County Office of Emergency Management also said the tents were to house utility workers, but they, too, had nothing to do with it, according to spokesman Sebastian D’elia. As of Friday, “ten percent of the county still doesn’t have power,” he said, so he wasn’t anxious to see the utility workers leave before electrical service was restored.
The Linden spokesman insisted that the city had nothing to do with the tent encampment, and that it was a project of the New Jersey State Police and FEMA.
Sgt. Adam Grossman, NJ State Police spokesman, affirmed the tent city will house utility workers and recommended the Linden Police Department for more information.
Linden Police Officer Ted Miller confirmed that the tent city is, indeed, a FEMA project. He was reading a notice the agency gave to the police department.
The tent city is set up to house 500 people, he said. A recent story at mycentraljersey.com said thatthe encampment would hold up to 4,000 utility workers.
“FEMA is in charge of it,” Miller said. “It’s for utility workers. Where they are going, I can’t tell you. What they are doing, I have no idea. They have been there for a couple of days.”
In another phone call, Sanders was a bit more forthcoming. “We might pay for the shelter, but we don’t track people who sign in, and we don’t track people who sign out. We have no operational control. It could be a county, faith-based, volunteer, or city project.”
The entity that set up the tent city, Sanders said, “contracts out to set up a tent city to house workers from all over the country. They bus them into tent camps, then bus them to their equipment in the morning. This is where they get some rest, eat, shower.”
Some nearby residents who were keeping a close vigil on the tents were suspicious that it might beone of the FEMA camps of urban legend. That is, a camp set up to house rounded up mutinious American citizens in the event martial law was declared.
One person also claimed that they saw black helicopters flying around the site, which is near Linden Airport.
Sanders said the contention was absurd. “We have no control over [the camp],” he repeated.