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