Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Practical Anarchy During Recovery from Hurrican Irene

Days after the Hurricane Irene damaged large parts of  Central Vermont this little soap company sent out an e-mail to its vendors and customers. The e-mail then was forwarded to many others. The message starts with the damage caused to the region where the soap factory was and how regular citizens helped each other.
 "Hurricane Irene came through and dumped nine feet of water on us in a single day. Water levels rose slowly for several hours, and then jumped dramatically higher. Within 15 minutes overworked culverts failed, and then were tossed aside like candy wrappers. A hundred bridges collapsed in Central VT including 15 covered bridges that had stood for nearly 150 years. Our little town of Rochester (pop 1200 on weekends) was completely cut off from the outside world. Electricity failed, but our town's well made water system worked continuously through the crisis. The sewer plant shut down and sewer mains were washed aside like the overwhelmed culverts that, once gone, left ten foot deep gashes across our main roads, secondary roads, and driveways.One of our friends lost their home when it crashed down into the raging brook. I had dropped off one of their daughters (who works for my wife at her Bakery) just an hour before.
Our town was completely alone. Everyone squared away their families as best they could and got to work. People, who cooked, cooked. People who ran heavy equipment jumped in. Organizers organized, volunteers volunteered, and everyone shared what they had. We kept the Bakery open, making French bread and bagels and soothing frayed nerves. People who had money paid. People with credit wrote it down. Everyone who worked or was devastated could eat for free."

What Larry experienced is not surprising, it happens in most disasters large and small in every culture and country. People come together and work together during times of crisis. What is interesting about this message is it shows how anarchy can be a powerful force in disaster rescue and recovery for US communities.
"I learned what anarchy is during those three days. Anarchy is not rioting in the streets. Anarchy is not pillaging and looting. Anarchy is when your buddy jumps out of the truck and starts directing traffic while something is going on, and then leaves when the operation is completed. Anarchy is feeding people because they are hungry and giving them showers because they are dirty. Then you continue doing what you were doing before you stopped doing that and did the thing that needed doing at that moment."

Larry goes on to write about the official response by various government agencies that failed to respond to the actual needs of the people. If you want to read the entire message which is very honest and well-written check out their web site at:

NYC's Response to Irene Not "Picture Perfect"

Just 36 hours after Irene left the streets of Manhattan, soggy Governor Cuomo was calling the response to the tropical storm, by both the city and the state, “Picture Perfect.” Most in the media agreed saying the city’s week long preparations were a new model of preparedness. The truth is that this so-called new model was not tested and from preliminary reports it did not work as advertised by the politicians. The city found itself short of 1,000 key city employees and had to ask the Governor to call in the National Guard-- 900 were sent to the five boroughs to pick up the slack. Of these 900, only about one quarter of them arrived by Sunday morning and a full 30% did not arrive until Sunday evening, long after the storm had moved north and west of the city. An interesting article, written by an EMT first responder, was posted to the blog
            On the Thursday evening before the storm hit, EMT Kevin Heldman received a robo-call from the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The call asked if he was available for disaster work and he answered yes, but then somehow Kevin got lost in the OEM’s bureaucracy. This is how he described it:

 “I called the 718 number that called me and was told the mailbox was full or not accepting messages. I called 311 repeatedly and they had absolutely no information about where I should report, what agency was coordinating the response efforts, or who I should call. I asked different operators, and asked to speak to supervisors. No luck.

I finally got a second robo-call, and was told to report to City College in Harlem on 137th Street at 10 a.m. for a 12-hour shift.”

“The city was using the gym as a shelter. We stood around for a long while with nothing to do, because no one was in charge. The City College athletic director came in. She wanted to make sure her floor was OK. She got people to come in and cover the volleyball court and told us the roof was leaking in a number of different places and that if the rain got bad so might the leaks. (This was in a hurricane shelter.)

There was a teacher who was head of science research at Stuyvesant. He and I went up to the roof to check it out. People were still working up there. There were numerous construction projects in progress with large amounts of material all over the place—the stuff that you would want secured or lashed down if you thought a hurricane was coming. We asked two workers whether they were going to be taking care of that. They said they didn’t know; their supervisor was out and would be back later.”

You may remember an earlier post that we discussed how the city had spent a ton of cash on buying complicated shortwave radios for the schools in times of disasters but the state refused to fund any training. Well Kevin experienced that also during his adventure at the OEM sponsored hurricane shelter:

                “He [a science teacher with no training] was made our head of communications [by the two random CERT volunteers], even though he didn’t know how to put together, charge or operate any of the brand new radios he and I were taking out of their packages, putting together and charging.”

            In fact, one year after the radios were bought, an audit found that nearly twenty percent had disappeared and a majority of school officials had no idea where they were in their buildings. So it is not surprising they could not get the radios functioning, it is more surprising that they found them at all.

            OEM claims that there are strict protocols for dealing with volunteers, going so far as to send out hundreds of DVDs about “Volunteer Orientation” to shelters. The video shows a strict command structure with everyone going about their business and reporting to others. The truth at the shelters was very different:

            “For a few hours, we sat there with nothing to do, meeting with various administrators who came in and also didn’t know what was going on or where we were supposed to go the next day, when the storm was supposed to hit with full force. A police officer came in at one point, stayed for a minute and left. The volunteers started leaving [the CERT volunteers had already left by 2am].”

            Kevin was eventually redeployed to one of the larger evacuation centers at John Jay College. He was assigned to the medical team and found out firsthand how ill-prepared the centers were to deal with the many disabled evacuees. This despite having the largest deployment of medical, CERT and even National Guardsmen of any of the evacuation centers in Manhattan. Here is one almost comical episode:

“A number of people at the shelter were diabetic and had to be checked and there was only one glucometer. I asked the nurse using the glucometer if it would it help if there was another one and she said that yes, of course it would. So I was back in Roosevelt E.R. asking the operations manager whether she could possibly spare one.

After a while, she checked and told me that no, I couldn’t borrow a glucometer because all of theirs were built into units. I asked whether I could take one from one of the Roosevelt ambulances. She said she would try that, and then another administrator got involved, and he tried to open an ambulance door, but it was locked. He made some phone calls but couldn’t get in touch with anyone. I left my cell-phone number, asked him to please call me when he heard anything. Back in the shelter, maybe 30 minutes later, he called to tell me that no glucometer was available.

Maybe an hour later, a Roosevelt administrator, Eileen Yost, showed up to speak with Dr. Long, asking what she could do to help. When she was walking away, I went up to her and introduced myself, told her what I had been doing and what had been going on and that what we really needed was a glucometer...

Eventually we got our glucometer. I took it from the hospital to the shelter under my raincoat. Dr. Long saw me pull it out from under my coat and asked whether I stole it. I had to explain that the very nice Roosevelt administrator had found one for us.

Susan Dietz, the chief nurse and vice president of patient care at Roosevelt, had very kindly and patiently showed me how to use the glucometer, which was a fancy new model unfamiliar to the nurses at the shelter. This was after one of her colleagues, responding to my requests, had tried to call security to have me thrown out.”

            Similar reports made by volunteers and evacuees can be found by trolling the internet. For some reason these voices never made it to the mainstream press reports or any of the official debriefings made by the OEM. Without these on the ground observations there is little chance the city will be better prepared next time when we might really need it.

Waffle House and FEMA

Another example of the professionalism of FEMA. It is true, sad and also absurdly funny - FEMA relies on the menu choices of Waffle House to determine the severity of hurricanes in the US. Yup. Crazy. Read this Wall Street Journal article if you dare. Click here

Monday, September 5, 2011

Radio and Landlines Best Ways to Communicate During Disasters

An interesting article appeared in today's New York Times about a radio DJ in the Catskills who acted as a conduit of information for people strapped throughout this area of New York.  Tropical Storm Irene skirted New York City, only to deluge mountainous New York and Vermont regions with tremendous amounts of rain, causing an estimated 1 billion dollars in damage to towns, farm land, and infrastructure such as roads and bridges--in upstate New York alone. Irene knocked out cell phone towers and the power, leaving battery-operated radios and landlines as the only means of communication for people who watched entire towns and bridges wash away with the force of the water, or who were stuck in the upper stories of their homes, unable to leave.

From the New York Times article:
"About 9 a.m., power and a number of the region’s cellphone towers were knocked out, leaving thousands without any way of communicating. WRIP’s backup generator kicked in, and the phone, an old-fashioned land line, started ringing. It has not stopped since.

For days Mr. Fink, who was soon joined by his colleague Joe Loverro, played matchmaker, soothing stranded residents, taking down numbers to relay to rescue workers and passing on information about makeshift shelters and closed roads. The two personalities and other WRIP employees guided listeners through the arrival of the National Guard, carrying emergency supplies, to towns like Prattsville, and kept people apprised of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s trip on Wednesday to that community, which was devastated by the storm.

People listened, first from radios powered by batteries or generators, and later from their cars as they drove around to survey the damage, which may top $1 billion in New York alone, Mr. Cuomo has estimated.

'I don’t know any emergency numbers, and I really would love to know if anybody can tell me what is happening in Hensonville,” one frantic caller, Joan, said that Sunday. “My son I know is in his house, probably on the second floor, and the neighbors are in their house and I don’t know any number.'"
The article is worth reading, but it is also an important reminder of a few key things one should do to prepare for a disaster:
  • Make sure you include a radio, along with extra batteries if needed, in your emergency supplies kit or go bag.  Look into crank radios, which do not require batteries. 
  • Important radio stations to know: National Weather Service SW 162.4 to 162.5 AM 700; Office of Emergency Management AM 750 FM 89.8; remember to scan throughout the dial for both pirate and local stations which become information resource hubs.
  • Make an emergency contact list with useful numbers and information (such as radio stations, landline locations) and keep it in a waterproof pouch/bag and keep it in your go bag.  Most of us no longer remember numbers, and when your cell phone dies and the power is out, you won't have access to the information on it. Also note, that cell phones in areas outside of the disaster range should still work properly.
  • No power means no internet, no cable, no VOIP (voice over IP) phone lines. Landlines might be the only means of communication, so, if you do not have one, note down who in your vicinity has access to a real landline (not a cable or internet-based line) which will be useful when you need to get in touch with friends, family, and comrades.
  • Remember that pay phones should theoretically work after a disaster, so make sure you have quarters in your emergency supplies/go bag.  "0" for operator should also work, even if you do not have change on hand.
If you have questions on what other supplies you'll need in your go bag, or how to put one together, click here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Are Prisoners Expendable during Disasters? FEMA Says Yes.

This week's disgraceful lack of planning for the more than 12,500 inmates at Riker's Island—as other parts of the city were evacuated for Hurricane Irene—is the rule not the exception when it comes to FEMA's thinking (or lack thereof) for the more than 2.3 million adults and 90,000 juveniles in US prisons. This indifference to over 1% of the population of the US is disgraceful and some prison-reform organizations have rightfully called it a crime against humanity. This callous indifference to the incarcerated is not new or unknown. The Orlean's Parish Prison (OPP)—the good folks in charge of the prisons and jails in New Orleans—have been subjected to over 20 lawsuits from prison groups, lawyers, families and prisoners themselves.

The ACLU report describes a history of neglect at OPP, one of the most dangerous and mismanaged jails in the country. This culture of neglect was evident in the days before Katrina, when the sheriff declared that the prisoners would remain "where they belong," despite the mayor's decision to declare the city's first-ever mandatory evacuation. OPP even accepted prisoners, including juveniles as young as 10, from other prison facilities to ride out Hurricane Katrina . As floodwaters rose in OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests. Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan. The prisoners were finally evacuated by order of the state after four and a half days of fear and chaos. The ACLU report follows the prisoners as they were transferred to jails and prisons around Louisiana. Thousands of the male prisoners were first transported to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where they were placed outdoors in a yard with inadequate food, medical care, adequate sanitation or even cots.

Here are just two stories from the transcripts of the ACLU lawsuit against the OPP:

"Renard Reed, a guard at OPP's psychiatric ward who reported to work before the hurricane out of a sense of camaraderie and shared responsibility. Like many other guards, Renard was locked in during his shift to prevent desertion, and was then ordered to go to the roof with a shotgun and shoot anyone trying to leave one of the flooded buildings. He was still stranded at the prison long after the prisoners were evacuated."

"Ashley George, a 13-year-old girl housed in OPP's Youth Center, who was moved to an area adjacent to an adult male holding area where the men watched her use the toilet. As the building began to flood, Ashley spent days in water up to her neck. Adult prisoners rescued Ashley and the other children from the waters. After being taken to the bridge for evacuation, Ashley was lucky enough to be given a bag of potato chips and water. She reports again being forced to relieve herself publicly and that pregnant girls received no assistance or treatment."

Most of Riker's Island is only 20 feet above sea level and connected to Queens by a single bridge. In addition there is a 800 bed floating jail barge—the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Facility—anchored off the north tip of the island. It has no power to move and no propulsion engine. So what is the plan for these nearly 13,000 people (some who are simply awaiting trial because they can't pay bail)? "We are not evacuating Rikers Island," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news conference in which he was demanding the evacuation of 400,000 other New Yorkers and shutting down the subways, buses and airports. Technically Riker's has no flood rating (the famous A, B, C system for determining flood areas) but all the surrounding islands, including uninhabitable ones, are designated an obvious A level—the highest chance of flooding. On late Saturday, just hours before the hurricane was to hit NYC the mayor's office released a statement to stem off complaints from the Legal Aid Society, city council members and prisoner advocacy groups. The statement simply said there was “a sound emergency plan” for Rikers and the prison barge. As of now no one has seen this plan, no details have been released and reporters' attempts to get more details have so far been rebuffed. Mayor Bloomberg's lackadaisical post-hurricane response,“Well, we didn't lose any prisoners or jails,” seems woefully inadequate.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

City Shelters are opening for Families with Pets

Despite previous policies, some shelters (e.g. Ozone Park) are taking in pets. It is unclear at present if all city shelters will but it seems most will provide arrangements for family pets (service animals have always been allow in crisis centers per Federal Law).

  • Be sure to bring your pets' food, medicines, leash and collar and papers showing shots.
  • If you have a pet you should make sure you get to the shelter early because your pets need to go through intake with volunteers.
  • To make sure your shelter takes pets please call 311
For more information on pet preparations for hurricane Irene check out this link: Click here

Some More Tips for Hurricane Irene

  • Stay indoors. If you must go outside, stay away from downed and dangling lines. Treat all downed lines as if they are live and dangerous.
  • If you use a portable generator, follow its important, life-saving instructions. Click here for more information on generators.
  • Listen to your battery-operated radio on for updates on our restoration progress and safety tips.
  • Use candles and storm lanterns carefully. Keep them out of drafts, away from flammable materials, and out of the reach of children.
  • If your power goes out call 1-800-75-CONED (1-800-752-6633).
  • Unplug appliances in basement or make sure they are at least 18 inches off the floor to avoid fires and electrical shocks.
  • Water services may be interrupted in some areas so store water ahead of time.
  • If you expect power failure turn your fridge and freezer to highest setting and avoid opening the door as much as possible.
  • Click here for step-by-step on turning off gas, water and electricity

Re: Hurricane Irene


We know this can be a difficult and confusing time but you are not alone. You live in the most resilient city in the US. If you follow some simple guidelines you can aid yourself, your family and your neighborhood. You and your neighbors are the best emergency resource this city has to offer.


Make sure you hydrate yourself. Dehydration is one of the most common injuries during a disaster. If you where there is no water, check your ice-cubes, hot water heater, or purify a gallon of water with 3 drops of regular bleach (wait 30 seconds before drinking). Also make sure you eat and get rest (even if it is a nap).

Check on your neighbors.

Even if phone service is out, sometimes payphones still work. You can dial 0 to get an operator if you have no change.

If you evacuate leave a note inside the door in a clear waterproof container (like a jar) where you went and when and how to be reached. If you decide to go somewhere bring a flashlight, water, any medications you are taking, money and first aid kit.

In high winds it is safer to be indoors. If you must be out, go with someone else in case you are injured by falling debris. Walk in a single file line.

If you see downed wires stay away from them. If there is sparking, popping noises, or the smell of ozone (like after a lightening strike) stay out of any standing water. If you can get to the fuse box, throw the top breaker to turn off the main.

If your roof has been seriously damaged (for example a fallen tree) do not go up there because it could be very unsafe from collapsed electrical wires or more falling debris.

During high-winds stay away from glass windows and stay out of the street (where most debris blows).

If there is a flooding, do not try to drive through deep standing water.

First Aid

If someone is unconscious but not breathing, tilt their head back lightly by putting your hand on their forehead. Look in their mouth for any object blocking their breathing. Pinch their nose and give three short breaths into their mouth. Take a deep breath yourself and continue.

If someone is bleeding a lot apply direct pressure with a bandage, shirt or towel directly on the wound. Hold for at least 60 seconds. Tie the bandage onto the wound putting a bow knot over the wound. Raise the wound, if possible, above the heart to reduce blood loss. If the bandage has been bled through, put another bandage on top of the old one (do NOT remove the bandage). If the bleeding continues put direct pressure back on top of the bandages and hold until bleeding stops.

If glass or any other object is protruding in a person, do NOT remove it. Put pressure around the wound and banadage it as best you can keeping the object from moving too much.

If a person may have a back injury do not move them.

If a person appears to be in shock (confused, cold and clammy, fixed pupils and/or very pale) lay them down. Elevate legs and arms and cover them.


If a pipe is broken, turn off the water main. The water main is a gray tear-drop shaped box located in the basement or ground floor on the wall closest to the street. Pull down the lowest lever towards the floor to turn off the main.

If you need to turn off the power go to the basement and look for a fuse box (a gun metal box on the wall). To turn off the main power flip all the switches starting from the top to the left. If there is a lever on the side, pull it down it will turn off all the power.

If you smell gas, leave your house immediately and leave the door open to avoid dangerous gas build up.


National Weather Service SW 162.4 to 162.5 AM 700
Office of Emergency Management AM 750 FM 89.8
Aftershock Community Rescue FM 88.9 SW 440MHz
For emergencies call 911. If you need help and phones are not working put a sign in a street facing window saying “Need 911”
Be careful of rumors and always try to verify with an outside source

You can do it. Connect with your neighbors and work together to provide for your building, block and/or neighborhood. Your best asset is your mind. If you are stressed take a few seconds and breath before doing anything.

What To Expect

A hurricane comes in 5 different types ranging in severity from the least severe to the most severe. Government agencies determine severity simply by measuring wind speed and tidal influence (not rain or lightening). Currently Irene will probably be a Level 1 when it hits NYC based on the official definition. Hurricanes are strange in that they can increase or decrease rapidly in strength. Katrina was expected to be a Level 2-3 and ended up being a level 5 within a few hours. There are some researchers that believe the level system is not an effective determination of the damage caused by hurricanes.

Here is the official definition of a category 1 from the National Weather Bureau:


A tropical storm with winds of 39-73 mph becomes a hurricane when its winds near the center reach 74 mph. The storm surge is generally 4-5 feet above normal. Damage is mostly to trees and shrubbery, with no real building damage. Average wind speed for a cat. 1 is 74-95mph. Minimum central pressure (980 mb.)

What can we expect here in NYC.

The last major hurricane in NYC was in 1985 (Hurricane Gloria). It caused about 385 million dollars in damage in today's dollars. It was mostly high winds and only produced 3.4 inches of rain in the city. The tide was not too high--a little over 6 feet. It produced about 100 injuries and 2 deaths. Gloria was an easier ride because of the low tide, small amount of rain, and to its fast moving nature. We are expecting about 12-16 inches rain from Hurricane Irene. The sewers and water processing plants routinely shut down with 6 inches. We can expect interruptions in both water service and electricity. It could be until mid-morning Monday before any public transportation will be running including Access-A-Ride. Some bridges will be closed for certain periods of time, with late Saturday and Sunday morning being the most likely times. Hospitals will have limited capabilities but seem somewhat prepared to handle an increase of about 15% with no real delays. Flood Zone A has received the first mandatory Hurricane Evacuation in NYC history. The bridges to the Rockaways will be shut down. In evacuation zones one should not expect to receive city emergency services.