The calm after the storm
Written by 10 May 2013on
Deputy Mayors Holloway and Gibbs release Hurricane Sandy after-action report following extensive review of preparedness and recovery operations.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda I. Gibbs released this week the City’s After-Action report for Hurricane Sandy, a comprehensive review of the City’s preparedness measures and recovery operations before, during and after the storm. Hurricane Sandy was unlike any storm in the City’s history, displacing thousands of New Yorkers and causing unprecedented damage across the five boroughs. In the days before the storm, the City activated its emergency shelter system and ordered an evacuation of low lying areas susceptible to Sandy’s storm surge. Following the storm, the City led one of the fastest disaster recovery efforts ever seen and that work continues today. In December 2012, Mayor Bloomberg directed Deputy Mayors Holloway and Gibbs to review the City’s preparedness and immediate response to the storm, and to make recommendations to strengthen the City’s capacity to respond quickly and effectively to future storms and other major emergencies. The 59 recommendations in the report fall into six categories: Communications; General and Healthcare Facility Evacuations; Public Safety; General and Special Medical Needs Sheltering; Response and Recovery Logistics; and Community Recovery Services. Mayor Bloomberg accepted the recommendations and work has already begun to implement as many as possible in advance of the 2013 Hurricane season. The After-Action report was developed through more than 100 inter- and intra-agency meetings and collaboration with nonprofit partners and State agencies, and is intended to strengthen the City’s ability to protect life and property in the face of increasing severe weather risks.
“Hurricane Sandy caused tragic loss of life, uprooted thousands of New Yorkers, and caused unprecedented damage throughout the five boroughs,” said Deputy Mayor Holloway. “Thousands of City employees mounted a massive and comprehensive response, from the first responders who risked their lives to save those in need, to the Department of Sanitation and dozens of City agencies who have worked tirelessly to help New Yorkers recover. This After-Action report makes clear that as well as the City performed, we can always do better; we will take the lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and strengthen the City’s capacity to respond to future emergencies.”
“Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster unlike any New York City has experienced and the City responded in kind, with a massive evacuation effort and rapid disaster recovery,” said Deputy Mayor Gibbs. “But we know there are always ways to improve and this after-action evaluation has identified key steps we can take to further enhance our ability to more effectively assist New Yorkers.”
To date, the City has helped more than 20,000 families return to their homes through the Rapid Repairs program, distributed more than 3 million meals to those who needed them and cleared an estimated 700,000 tons of debris. As it works to launch new programs to address housing, business and infrastructure needs in the hardest hit communities with $1.77 billion in Federal aid, the City’s efforts now also focus on the long-term challenges, including developing a roadmap to make New York City more resilient to future storms.
The After-Action Report, available on www.nyc.gov, is focused on the City’s response before, during and after a severe storm – and establishes the City’s priorities for how to prepare for the next severe storm or a similar event. Many of the recommendations in the report are applicable beyond coastal storms and will increase the City’s overall capacity to respond to future emergencies.
311 is the primary way that New Yorkers interact with City government and during Hurricane Sandy, call volumes reached unprecedented levels. 311 remained up and running throughout the storm, but it is clear that redundant phone line capacity and other investments are needed to ensure that this means of communication is available with minimal waiting time. With respect to storm-related communications by the City, prior to, during and following the storm major television networks and radio channels carried live press conferences; the City sent more than 2,000 tweets and gained more than 175,000 social media followers; NYC.gov received 4 million unique visitors and 16 million page views; the Mayor Office’s YouTube channel had nearly 1 million views; and the Office of Emergency Management sent Notify NYC alerts via landline, text, email and Twitter to more than 165,000 residents. Recommendations from the After-Action report include formalizing and expanding the regular updates to elected officials and community partners during Hurricane Sandy and expanding the use of cloud-based mapping solutions to support emergency activity.
General and Healthcare Facility Evacuations
On October 28, 2012, Mayor Bloomberg issued a mandatory evacuation of Coastal Storm Plan Evacuation Zone A—including neighborhoods added following Hurricane Irene—based on revised storm-surge projections from the National Weather Service. Only the second general population evacuation in the City’s history, the evacuation order required 375,000 New Yorkers to leave their homes and communities in advance of the storm. Many residents of Zone A heeded the evacuation order and left. Despite extensive communications before the storm, thousands of residents chose not to leave their homes; tragically, 43 New Yorkers lost their lives to the storm.
With respect to health care facilities, the State Department of Health and the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene worked side-by-side in the Healthcare Evacuation Center at the Office of Emergency Management in the days before the storm to prepare healthcare facilities for anticipated storm impacts. State regulations require that hospitals and nursing homes have a backup power source to allow them to shelter in place and continue services in the event of an outage. The decision to order a general evacuation of healthcare facilities must be balanced against the inherent risks of the evacuation itself to vulnerable populations. These risks were a substantial consideration before Mayor Bloomberg ordered a general hospital evacuation in advance of Hurricane Irene, and while there were no deaths associated with healthcare evacuations in connection with that storm, the challenges posed by the evacuation were a focus of the City’s after-action review of the Hurricane Irene storm response. Hurricane Sandy’s unprecedented storm surge caused widespread power outages and flooding that ultimately compromised the ability of five hospitals and approximately 30 residential facilities to shelter in place throughout the storm and its aftermath. Those facilities were evacuated, and patients and residents were taken to alternate locations, in some cases for extended periods. Although these large-scale evacuations were completed without patient fatalities, several improvements can be made to this component of storm response operations. The report recommends working with the New York State Department of Health to strengthen and enforce current regulations and develop any new regulations that may be necessary to ensure that these facilities have comprehensive emergency plans in place, including adequate back-up power supply, and a specific evacuation plan in the event that one is ordered in the future.
Public Safety is the paramount job of municipal government. During and after the storm, city agencies including the NYPD and the FDNY rescued thousands of people from the rising waters of the storm. The City’s 911 emergency call-taking system reached its highest hourly call volume ever – 20,000 calls per hour – during the storm, and the recently upgraded 911system functioned as designed and did not fail or drop any calls. As a result of the storm surge and high winds, more than a million New Yorkers were left without power. The NYPD provided traffic management and intersection control in areas without functioning traffic signals for weeks after the storm and the City established an intergovernmental a taskforce to prioritize placement of generators and boilers to locations that needed power for immediate life-safety needs. Among the public safety recommendations in the report are expediting the purchase of public safety equipment for rescues, and developing alternative power options to keep traffic and street lights functioning; improving and strengthening pre-storm messaging about the proper use of 911 and 311; developing a comprehensive plan to expedite power restoration to multi-family public and private housing; improving and expanding off-season site generator assessments for public facilities; and establishing a Dewatering and Generator Task Force and Action Plan to activate in advance of an approaching storm that will collect and use detailed information about buildings in flood-prone areas to expedite recovery.
The City’s evacuation shelter system provides a safe place outside the evacuated area to meet evacuees’ basic health and safety needs during a coastal storm or other emergency. If fully activated for all evacuation zones, the system can accommodate up to 600,000 people. During Hurricane Sandy, the City opened the first tier of shelters – enough to accommodate the maximum projected 71,000 people who could potentially seek shelter during an evacuation of Zone A. From the shelters’ opening on October 28 until the City transitioned to other temporary housing options – including hotels – on November 12, approximately 6,800 people sought shelter and eight Special Medical Needs Shelters served a total of 2,236 evacuees, including 1,800 residents of chronic care facilities. Recommendations include updating and expanding the Coastal Storm shelter plan to operate for an expanded period of time and developing a plan for rapid transition to accommodations suitable for medium-term occupancy; improving shelter accessibility for all New Yorkers; working with the State Health Department to ensure better evacuation and shelter in place plans for residential facilities; and utilizing special medical needs shelters only as a last resort.
Response and Recovery Logistics, Utilities & Infrastructure
In its wake, Hurricane Sandy left more than a million New Yorkers without power; destroyed 95 percent of telecommunications infrastructure in Lower Manhattan; and severely damaged the region fuel infrastructure, causing a major fuel shortage. More than 80,000 NYCHA residents in 423 buildings had no power, heat or hot water, and many critical facilities, including multiple hospitals could not provide essential services. The City formed a Task Force that included FEMA and the Army Corps of engineers to immediately source as many generators and boilers as possible to meet unprecedented demand. The City worked with landlords to assist in restoring services to buildings throughout the impacted areas. The After-Action Report recommends that a number of steps be taken to strengthen the City’s ability to restore essential services, including working with utilities to get regular data feeds regarding the status of the electric, natural gas, liquid fuels, and telecommunications networks; the establishment of inter-agency teams to immediately initiate neighborhood and building assessments; and development of a fuel and transportation plan to ensure adequate supply for emergency services and that the transportation network flows as efficiently as possible. Additional recommendations address improvements to debris-removal operations and other immediate recovery operations.
Community Recovery Services
Hurricane Sandy not only caused physical damage to homes and neighborhoods, as well as widespread power and telecommunications outages, but disrupted almost every aspect of life for communities. In response, the City established borough recovery directors to work on the ground and with communities to provide services – including food, water and households items – to New Yorkers in need. In total, more than 1 million bottles of water and more than 3 million meals were distributed. The City also created distribution sites and Restoration Centers that served as one-stop-shops for city, state and federal resources to assist those most impacted by the storm. Recommendations include developing a Food and Water Distribution Task Force to systematize the City’s response operation and formalizing the borough recovery director structure that the Mayor established after Sandy to improve the City’s ability to meet specific needs on the ground.
The City’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy will continue as long as there are New Yorkers who are displaced from their homes and businesses, and until neighborhoods have fully recovered from the storm. The Mayor convened the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency to evaluate the steps the City can take to better protect neighborhoods from major climate events, as well as to develop recovery plans for the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy. The Special Initiative will make its recommendations to the Mayor later this month. The City has also submitted its application for federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief funds to assist home and business owners in restoring their properties. Once approved, $1.77 billion will be distributed through City-established programs that focus on New Yorkers whose recovery needs have not yet been met, and fund resiliency measures to protect against storm surge and flooding.