The power was out for 2 million electric customers in New York. Hospitals and nursing homes were evacuating patients and shutting down. Thousands of people were stranded in high-rise buildings, needing food and water. In Queens, houses were burning to the ground. Water rescues were taking place in New York City and on Long Island.
These events didn’t take place on different days. They all happened simultaneously when Hurricane Sandy struck New York on Oct. 29, 2012. They illustrate three key distinguishing aspects of a Type 1 disaster: scope and scale, velocity and ambiguity of information. Emergency managers responding to Hurricane Sandy in New York experienced all of these challenges.
New York state, New York City and county agencies responded to Sandy with the highest level of discipline, dedication and compassion. Even with our considerable capabilities, we were challenged by the immensity of the undertaking.
Sandy made landfall as an 800-mile-wide post-tropical cyclone. It shut down a metropolitan area with 13 million residents, caused approximately 50 fatalities and damaged more than 119,000 homes. About 10,000 people took refuge in 96 shelters; many more were displaced and stayed with relatives or in hotels. More than 140,000 gas meters were destroyed. Fuel distribution was cut off as refineries, pipelines and storage terminals sustained direct impacts from Sandy. One-quarter of all telecommunications capacity was knocked out.
Eight hospitals had to evacuate patients. New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., which serves 1.4 million patients annually at 11 hospitals, reported losses of more than $800 million. New York University Langone Medical Center estimated its losses at $1 billion and most services were shut down for two months. Forty nursing homes were evacuated, and 30,000 structures were checked by first responders and search and rescue teams.
Photo: FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Byrne answers Hurricane Sandy disaster questions using Twitter on Jan. 9 at the Joint Field Office in Forest Hills, N.Y. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA
Port Authority facilities sustained damages of more than $100 million. Wastewater treatment plants were impacted and some partially treated sewage was released into the environment. Flooding caused extensive damage to the Holland Tunnel, Queens Midtown Tunnel, subway and rail lines, many roads and the city’s ferry facilities, including the Staten Island Ferry. Sandy brought major coastal flooding to the New York coastline, along the entire south shore from Staten Island to Montauk Point and in bays and rivers. More than 3.6 million cubic yards of sand were washed away at sites constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Liberty Island and Ellis Island were flooded and had to be closed for repairs to infrastructure.
FEMA and its state and federal partners deployed nearly 8,000 personnel at the beginning of the disaster. More than 40 federal agencies participated in the response. We helped bring in 350 contract ambulance crews and deployed 20 disaster medical assistance teams. The Air Force transported power company trucks from California. The Army Corps of Engineers installed 211 generators at vital facilities and unwatered subways and tunnels. Nearly 1,200 FEMA community relations specialists (now called disaster survivor assistance specialists) went door to door in affected neighborhoods. All of this was in support of the existing, robust response capabilities of the state, city and counties.
A catastrophic incident, as defined by the National Response Framework, is “any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, which results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale and/or government functions.” I don’t know whether Sandy qualifies as catastrophic, but there is no doubt in my mind that Sandy presented all three of the aspects that define a Type 1 event.
A Type 1 disaster comes at you fast and nonstop. Every county, village and town needs to be our priority — and understandably so. Many times we didn’t have a 100 percent solution. Often, responders had to rely on partial information. We had to establish objectives. Our guidance makes it clear that life-saving and life-sustaining objectives are top priorities until the situation is stabilized.
So many events were going on in so many places that we quickly established a geographical construct, with three branches and nine divisions, stretching from Long Island through the lower boroughs of New York City and north through the Hudson Valley. This allowed us to push down our decision-making close to the action.
There was a cascade effect. The water came in, causing a loss of power, loss of sewer, loss of basic transportation. Nursing homes and hospitals needed to be evacuated. Elevators in high-rise buildings didn’t work. Ingress and egress were blocked by 6 million cubic yards of debris. The fire department couldn’t get to whole city blocks of Breezy Point that were burning. We had multiple incidents within incidents.
Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Nassau County and Suffolk County sustained most of the housing damage from Sandy — accounting for 114,000 of the 119,000 damaged homes reported to FEMA. With so many people displaced, the housing challenge became immense. In New York, people live vertically, so loss of power to one meter could affect hundreds of households. We had to find places to put people, in a hurry. The difficulty was compounded by the lack of available rental resources. The vacancy rate averaged 3.1 percent, including rent-stabilized and market-rate units, and what was available was expensive. Hotels were full with tourists in town for the holiday season. FEMA housed 1,100 members of the U.S. DHS Surge Capacity Force on three merchant marine ships to preserve hotel rooms for survivors.
There was virtually no excess housing stock and no place to put temporary housing units. We worked quickly with local and state agencies to implement the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program, which reimburses eligible applicants for temporary repairs that would allow them to remain in their homes while undertaking longer-term repairs. FEMA worked with state and federal partners to assist households in their search for longer-term housing, and FEMA housed nearly 6,000 families temporarily in hotels during the first six months.
New York consists of many cultures, and the language issue complicated the response. The New York Times has estimated that nearly 800 languages and dialects are spoken in the area. We had to be mindful of cultural traditions in the neighborhoods, as well as communication issues. FEMA distributed 1.1 million fliers with disaster assistance information in 26 languages and assigned translators to disaster recovery centers and to neighborhood outreach. In one case, we knew there were hundreds of Russian-speaking residents, many of them elderly, on the upper floors of high-rise buildings in Brighton Beach and Coney Island. We sent translators with our outreach to get word to survivors in that area.
Imperfect information is a dilemma in a Type 1 event. During the response to Sandy, communications were significantly interrupted. Cell service was out. Land lines were down. It was complex.
FEMA put incident management assistance teams into counties, co-located with county EOCs. We had to resolve ambiguities so we could decide where to apply resources. Public safety went to the top of the list.
Hundreds of community relations specialists, going door to door in impacted communities, assessed conditions and provided situational awareness at a neighborhood level. We established neighborhood task forces to provide information and support. Our liaisons at state and local agencies helped sift conflicting data.
From moment to moment, information flow in a Type 1 event is a challenge to leadership. The challenge is unlike that of any other type of incident.
As we have seen from several major disasters in the past two decades, the geographic scope and number of casualties varies but the impact is extraordinary in all Type 1 events. Hurricane Katrina took 1,500 lives, displaced 300,000 households and caused damage totaling $150 billion over 90,000 square miles. In three Mississippi counties alone, it left behind more debris than the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Andrew, according to a U.S. Senate committee special report in 2006.
The attack on the World Trade Center damaged a relatively small geographic area but took nearly 3,000 lives and was a severe national trauma. Moreover, the economic impact on New York City’s economy was estimated at 429,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in lost wages in the subsequent three months. The 1994 Northridge earthquake in California damaged 114,000 structures over a 2,100-mile area and resulted in 72 fatalities. Beyond the physical damage, the impact on commuting in auto-dependent Southern California was significant.
Hurricane Sandy affected the nation’s largest metropolitan area. While the official fatality number was not as large as in some other major events, the devastation to homes, apartment buildings, commercial structures, hospitals, schools, subways and other public facilities was enormous. So far, more than $7 billion in federal funds has been expended on response and recovery. Communities will be rebuilding for years.
In recent years, our nation has increased its capability to respond to a major disaster, led by local teams and supported by the National Preparedness Directorate, which is responsible for enhancing our readiness through a comprehensive cycle of planning, organizing, equipping, training, exercising and evaluating.
After Katrina, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs made this statement in its report: “We knew Katrina was coming. How much worse would the nightmare have been if the disaster had been unannounced — an earthquake in San Francisco, a burst levee near St. Louis or Sacramento, a biological weapon smuggled into Boston Harbor or a chemical weapon terror attack in Chicago? Hurricane Katrina found us — still — a nation unprepared for catastrophe.”
The Type 1 events that our nation has faced have presented severe challenges, but they were manageable. We haven’t experienced a truly catastrophic event, one that overwhelms our ability to respond.
All of us in the emergency management community should ask ourselves: Are we ready?