Michael Byrne is a federal coordinating officer for FEMA in New York responding to Hurricane Sandy.
As Hurricane Sandy approached New York in late October 2012, the change in how FEMA responds to large disasters was immediately apparent.
The Post-Katrina Reform Act now allows us to declare an emergency before the storm, allowing us to preposition people and supplies. We were leaning forward to be in position to assist our local and state partners responding to the largest storm to hit the nation’s biggest metropolitan area.
Before landfall, we staged food, water and equipment in New Jersey to be ready once the storm passed. And my team, one of three national Incident Management Assistance Teams, was in the New York City Office of Emergency Management working alongside our local counterparts.
Within 48 hours of landfall, we had 1,200 people in the field, going door to door in affected neighborhoods of New York City as well as Nassau and Suffolk counties. We put a million shelf-ready meals (including kosher meals) and a million liters of water at a predesignated supply base ready for distribution by the National Guard and voluntary agencies.
I worked for 20 years in the New York Fire Department as well as the New York Office of Emergency Management, so I knew that our response was going to have to be huge. I knew that in a city of 8 million, we were not going to have enough boots on the ground. Luckily, FEMA had planned for that need.
We implemented the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force — volunteers from various homeland security departments who rapidly deployed to New York. This was a new initiative that the agency had started, and it was the first time it was put into place. The participating agencies included the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard and others.
In addition, the new FEMA Corps — which consists of young people between the ages of 18 and 24, who are interested in a career in emergency management — was deployed to New York and participated in response. Hotel rooms were sparse, and we didn’t want to take rooms from survivors, so the Department of Transportation brought in three Merchant Marine training ships to house our forces.
But it wasn’t all FEMA and DHS. All of our federal partners deployed to New York in those first hours. They included the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Defense. The Marines even landed on the beach in the Rockaways.
With NYU Langone Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital, Coney Island Hospital and others taken out of commission, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and set up field hospitals.
The American Red Cross set up shelters and feeding stations across the affected areas. The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and other nonprofits immediately started working on the relief efforts. They went door to door, provided clothes and handed out supplies.
These capabilities of FEMA, its federal partners, and nonprofit and faith-based organizations enabled us to deliver help to a city and state that had never experienced this kind of devastation from a hurricane.
Our priorities were the four Ps: people, power, pumping and pickup (debris). Besides getting assistance funds into the hands of survivors quickly, we helped New York with significant challenges involving hospitals and other public facilities without power and subway tunnels flooded and unusable.
People are always our first priority. Thirty-five points of distribution were established with food, water, blankets and other supplies for survivors. Three days after the storm, FEMA had supplied 1.9 million meals and 1.3 million liters of water.
Our next goal was to get people out of shelters and into a safe, secure and habitable place to live. New York is a difficult challenge due the density of the population. We had huge numbers of people and a tight housing market, with very little rental available. So we activated our Temporary Sheltering Assistance program, which moved people out of congregate shelters and into hotels.
In the first 30 days, 236,000 people registered for FEMA assistance and we put $703 million into the hands of survivors. This money was for rental assistance, repairs and replacement of items lost in the storm.
But that wasn’t enough to solve the problem. Obviously, New York is not a good location to bring in Temporary Housing Units (mobile homes) because there is no place to put them. We needed another way to help survivors.
The power had been restored to the street, but people’s homes could not be connected to the grid because they had been inundated with saltwater. If we could get the power restored, get heat to at least a few rooms in the home and make minor repairs, we could get survivors back into their homes while repairs were being made. We looked at our authorities and developed the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program. This emergency program helped New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties pay contractors to do emergency repairs to turn people’s homes into a location to shelter-in-place. The STEP program has enabled more than 10,000 families to return to their homes, and the work continues.
FEMA has placed an emphasis on communicating with Sandy survivors in their own languages. To accomplish this, we are distributing flyers and other registration materials in 25 languages, multilingual field media specialists are providing information through media organizations broadcasting in several languages, and we established a toll-free Language Assistance Line to support non-English/non-Spanish speakers. All of this is helping us reach New York’s diverse communities.
The power situation was critical. More than 2 million electric customers were without power after the storm. FEMA established a National Power Restoration Task Force to cut through red tape, increase federal, state, tribal, local and private-sector coordination, and restore power and fuel as soon as possible.
The Air Force used C-17 cargo planes to transport equipment and supplies for power restoration, including 69 vehicles belonging to Southern California Edison.
An Army Corps of Engineers task force installed 211 generators at sites in New York, including hospitals, nursing homes and apartment buildings managed by the New York City Housing Authority. More than 25,000 people received power directly because of the corps mission.
Pumping was a huge challenge. We had tunnels and subways full of water. I was down at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (now called the Hugh Carey Tunnel) a few days after the storm. The water was to the very top of the tunnel. The South Ferry subway station took on 65 feet of water.
I thought it would take months to get those tunnels pumped out but the Army Corps of Engineers pumped a total of 474 million gallons of water in less than two weeks, including 270 million gallons from subways and tunnels. That was an engineering miracle.
Fuel terminals were damaged by the storm, and the fuel delivery pipeline was stopped. So even if we could get power to gas stations, there was not enough fuel for this urban population. We had huge lines at gas stations and a major fuel shortage. The Defense Logistics Agency delivered 2.3 million gallons of fuel to distribution points in New York and New Jersey, and we got into the fuel business. We made it a priority to get fuel to first responders and those critical to the response.
Hurricane Sandy generated 6 million tons of debris. It is imperative to get the debris out of the way, because that helps speed the recovery and it serves as a morale boost to the community.
President Barack Obama signed an order saying we could pay for straight time for 30 days for debris pickup. Normally, we just pay for overtime, but being able to pay for all of the hours worked is a huge incentive to get the debris picked up and it puts money back into jurisdictions. Within 10 weeks, 86 percent of the debris had been removed, enabling neighborhoods to begin recovery.
FEMA is not a first responder agency. Response always starts at the local level with police, fire, emergency medical services and local government agencies. They are the backbone of response in all disasters.
The next level is local government. In New York, local government plays a huge role. New York City is like a state all by itself, split into five boroughs, each with a population larger than most cities. Long Island is like a second state within New York. And finally, you have the rest of New York.
Early on, we understood the complexity and size of this disaster. So I split my Operations section into three branches: New York City, Long Island and the rest of the state. We then put divisions under each of the branches. For example, in NYC we have five divisions, one for each borough.
This basic Incident Command Structure enabled Operations to manage the disaster and our workforce. It also enabled us to give each of the local governments the support they needed.
In many cases, community organizations joined with government agencies to reach out to storm survivors.
More than 500 national, state and local voluntary and faith-based organizations have helped people in need. They are providing donations, volunteer management, home repair, child care, counseling services and removal of muck and mold from homes.
The American Red Cross, the Food Bank For New York City and other organizations have served more than 3.5 million meals.
As FEMA continues to support our state partners and their efforts to recover from Sandy, it is worth taking a moment to recognize that we are just one part of a larger emergency management team that includes the entire federal family, state, local and tribal governments, the faith-based and nonprofit communities, and the public. The response to this disaster has truly been a whole community effort.
We couldn’t do this by ourselves. As a native New Yorker, I know that New Yorkers have a strong sense of community. They look after one another. We’re just joining their team.