This month, New York City released its after action report detailing what worked well and what needs to be improved based on the city’s preparations, mitigations, response, and recovery. The report acknowledges that “This report is not intended to be the final word on the City’s response to Hurricane Sandy, nor are the recommendations made here intended to exclude consideration of additional measures the City and other stakeholders could take to be prepared for the next emergency.”

As the report notes, “The City’s response to Hurricane Sandy began well before the storm and continues today, but [the City is] far enough away from the immediate events of October and November 2012 to evaluate the City’s performance to understand what went well and—as another hurricane season approaches—what can be improved.” It’s pretty amazing that NYC is willing to release an AAR before the incident is “closed-out” in order to improve preparedness for this upcoming hurricane season. NYC government should be applauded for understanding how important it is to use Hurricane Sandy as a feedback loop in order to inform and advance planning for future natural disasters.

Through my quick read of the report, the following on some important points to consider.

  • NYC Coastal Storm Plan: “The current iteration of the City’s formal preparations for a coastal storm began in 2000 with the release of the Coastal Storm Plan (CSP), a collection of programs to prepare and respond to a storm, including evacuation, sheltering, and logistics planning” (page 4). Notice how they explain that the CSP is a collection of programs— not just plans. Programs are living entities that (hopefully) evolve, mature, and improve. Plans have a tendency to just sit on a shelf.
  • Continuous Improvement: Significant adjustments were made to the CSP following Hurricane Irene in 2011. The programs included in the CSP evaluated their performance after the last major incident and made improvements.
  • Feedback Loop: “To help understand why people in Coastal Storm Plan Evacuation Zone A chose to evacuate (or not), the City conducted a survey in English and Spanish to ask about New Yorkers’ overall awareness of evacuation zones, how they received information about evacuation zones and severe weather, and their confidence in the City’s guidance to evacuate or shelter in place.” (page 4) 
  • The AAR generated 59 recommendations, six core areas, and seven themes (this is slightly confusing). Six core areas are: (i) communications; (ii) general and healthcare facility evacuations; (iii) public safety; (iv) general and special medical needs sheltering; (v) response and recovery logistics; and (vi) community recovery services.
  • Seven themes:
  1. Improved evacuation, including updated evacuation zones and better, clearer communication to help New Yorkers 

    understand how to protect themselves from the risk of

    severe weather. 

  2. Improved accessibility of all coastal storm-related information and services to make them available to all New Yorkers, including persons with disabilities or special medical needs, homebound populations, non-English speakers, and undocumented immigrants

  3. Better integration of the City’s data across platforms and agencies to increase situational awareness and allow more targeted, efficient response and recovery operations.
  4. Additional capacity to respond to large-scale building inundation and loss of power, including pre-storm identification of the equipment and skilled resources likely to be needed for building restoration and better coordination with private building owners.
  5. Better coordination of relief to affected areas and to vulnerable or homebound populations, including more efficient deployment of volunteers and donations to residents and business owners.
  6. The development of a mid- to long-term housing plan for New Yorkers displaced by damage from coastal storms.
  7. Partnership with the federal and state authorities that regulate and enforce standards for private companies and utilities that provide essential services to New York City residents.
  • Communications (Page 6)
  • Yikes! Notify NYC only has 165,000 registered users (out of 8.3 million residents, or 1.99% of NYC residents). For comparison, Portland, Oregon has 137,000 self-registered users of its emergency notification system and its population is 600,000 (or 23% of residents).

  • The City became the first local municipality in the country to use the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS), an emergency text message service created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to send text messages to all equipped cell phones in a designated geographical area regardless of phone carrier service or origin. The City used CMAS three times during Sandy, starting at noon on October 28 after the Mayor announced the mandatory Zone A evacuation and twice on October 29 between 8:30 and 9:30 PM during the height of the storm.
  • Recommendations:
    1. Further expand capacity of 311 call-taking during emergencies.
    • Implement a redundant call routing solution to ensure continuity of 311 call-taking.
    • Establish an alternate location for 311 call-takers.
    • Expand the use of cloud-based mapping solutions to support emergency activity.2. Formalize and expand regular updates to elected officials and community partners.
    • Update and collect the specific documents(PDFs) that are most relevant to the emergency for circulation, including agency documents such as building electrical
    recertification forms. Develop versions of critical documents for wide distribution that can be read by software used by people with visual disabilities.

    3. Standardize City communications by creating a template for flyers, adaptable logos, standard language, and translations to facilitate faster communications

  • General and Healthcare Facility Evaluations (page 8)
  • 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. However, thousands of people did not leave the evacuation zone; tragically, 43 New Yorkers lost their lives to the storm.
  • 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 Hurricane Irene storm response
  • 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.
  • The City is revising its hurricane evacuation zones for the 2013 hurricane season. The new zones 1 through 6—which will replace Zones A, B, and C—include an additional 640,000 New Yorkers not included within the boundaries of the former zones.
  • The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) strengthened its communications plan after Hurricane Irene. In advance of Sandy, NYCHA made 33,000 calls to 19,000 families, posted flyers in multiple languages, and worked with the NYPD to make announcements with bullhorns from marked vehicles with flashing lights in order to encourage residents to evacuate before elevators and other building systems were
    powered down. NYCHA and the NYPD also provided 200 buses to help residents evacuate and continued to transport residents outside of Zone A until it was no longer safe for first responders to be on the roads
  • Residents who receive an instruction to evacuate are only slightly more likely to evacuate: 88% of Zone A residents surveyed knew that they lived in a hurricane evacuation zone, and 78% knew that they lived in Zone A. In addition, 71% of Zone A residents reported hearing an announcement to evacuate from a public official. Yet those who knew they lived in a vulnerable area and received an official instruction to evacuate were only slightly more likely to evacuate than a resident who reported that they did not receive such an instruction (78% vs. 68%).
  • The most significant factors contributing to a decision not to evacuate include a belief that the storm would not be strong enough to pose a danger (22%); a belief that the resident’s home was sufficiently elevated to prevent flooding (11%); and a general belief that the resident’s home was well built (8%). Of those surveyed, 29% reported evacuating after the storm. Among residents who evacuated before or after the storm, 67% evacuated for more than 48 hours, 78% stayed with friends, and 2% stayed at a City evacuation shelter
  • In total, City and State officials helped safely evacuate approximately 6,300 patients from 37 different healthcare facilities without a single fatality

  • Healthcare “facilities were repatriated as they came back online, but this process was not as orderly as it should have been because there are no guidelines for healthcare facilities to reopen after an evacuation, such as a structural certification from the Department of Buildings (DOB), letters from certified contractors to verify essential utility connections, and inspection from the relevant healthcare oversight entity.” TJ Note: The word “repatriated” is often used for human remains and refugees–perhaps “reconstituted” would be a more descriptive term…
  • Recommendations include developing a patient tracking system
  • Public Safety (page 12)
  • The City’s 911 emergency call-taking system reached its highest hourly call volume ever—20,000 calls per hour—during Hurricane Sandy and received more calls during one 24-hour period between 3:00 PM on October 29 and 3:00 PM on October 30 than on September 11, 2001 or during the 2003 blackout, the two highest call periods prior to Sandy.

  • During and after the storm, the NYPD Special Operations division and FDNY water rescue teams used prepositioned personnel and equipment in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens to rescue more than 2,200 people
  • Once the storm subsided, FDNY and NYPD conducted grid searches of more than 31,000 homes and businesses to locate and assist people in severely affected areas
  • Nearly 630,000 Con Edison and Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) customer accounts—more than 1.5 million people—were without power… Fallen trees brought outages to approximately 70% of customers served by overhead power lines in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island

  • NYPD provided traffic management and intersection control in areas without functioning traffic signals for weeks after the storm, though the number of intersections with signals without power immediately after the storm—more than 3,500—exceeded the number of available traffic enforcement agents. The NYPD quickly mobilized 1,200 Police Academy recruits to augment traffic control measures at key intersections
  • Key recommendation:Establish 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.
    • Develop a plan to address environmental contamination in dewatering and debris removal.
    • Develop street siting and permitting criteria for large temporary generators and boilers.
    • Identify goods for a strategic stockpile and/or establish emergency contracts for additional critical resources
    such as generators, boilers, and electrical switchgear.
    • To the extent necessary, contract for emergency on-call electricians for generator installation and post-disaster assessments, and for on-call plumbers to install boilers.
    • Add generator operations and maintenance and GPS locators to the standard scope of work for generator contracting to help track location and placement in areas with poor communications connectivity.
  • Sheltering (page 16)
  • The majority of people seeking shelter arrived by October 30, immediately after the storm passed.
  • The City’s communal shelters are designed as temporary places for people to seek safety and are not intended to provide food and accommodations for longer than three days—a far shorter duration than the time that many people could not return to their homes due to flood damage and the extended power outages caused by
    Sandy’s storm surge.
  • Evacuation Centers also lack resources such as showers and laundry facilities; when possible, the City opened nearby recreational facilities with showers
  • Key recommendation: Make charging stations for wheelchairs and scooters available to people with disabilities.

  • Key recommendation: Plan on full-scale sheltering operations longer than 3-5 days
  • From October 28 to November 19, the eight Special Medical Needs Shelters served a total of 2,236 evacuees. Among those served were approximately 1,800 residents of chronic care facilities who were unable to shelter in place due to inadequate backup power to maintain a safe environment for residents or other damage to their facilities, and who could not be placed at other nursing homes or adult care facilities
  • Response and Recovery Logistics, Utilities, and Infrastructure (page 18)
  • Some data was immediately available to guide recovery efforts. For example, water usage data immediately before the storm from DEP’s automated meter readers (AMR) gave an indication of which households may not have evacuated before the storm. Internet-based applications such as GasBuddy supplemented on-the-ground intelligence from NYPD about fuel availability

  • Key recommendation: Formalize how building inspectors share building status information with social service providers that respond to resident needs
  • Beginning Sunday November 4, the City worked with the National Guard, the federal Defense Logistics Agency, the federal Department of Energy, and the National Park Service to set up a fueling operation at Floyd Bennett Field for City vehicles and other critical recovery personnel. Along with two satellite locations, more than 25,000 emergency and essential vehicles obtained fuel through this partnership
  • Waived environmental protections: For the general public, the City worked with the State to temporarily waive sulfur content requirements for fuel consumption and to ease fuel transportation restrictions into and within the five boroughs. The City also worked with the federal government to suspend the Jones Act to allow tankers originating from foreign countries to supply fuel from refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, and to temporarily waive federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements that are specific to dense, urban environments, allowing fuel consumed outside of New York to be consumed within the city. 
  • The Mayor issued high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) restrictions on the river crossings into Manhattan on November 1 and November 2. To alleviate persistent fuel lines, on November 9 Mayor Bloomberg issued an odd/even license plate fuel rationing system that remained in place until November 24, when the City’s fuel supply infrastructure had been largely restored
  • Key recommendation: Create a Fuel Task Force, modeled after the Downed Tree Task Force (the inter-agency tree removal group), to ensure adequate fuel for rescue and recovery operations.• Add a fuels desk to OEM’s Emergency Operations Center.
    • Formalize and expand DCAS/NYPD partnerships with retail gas stations.
    • Build federal and state support and create a “playbook” for regulatory relief during fuel shortages.
    • Protect and standardize eligibility for use of City fueling sites.
    • Research options and viability of creating local emergency fuel reserves.
  • Sandy generated an estimated 700,000 tons of storm debris, including construction and demolition debris, sand, concrete, and more than 27,000 tons of woody debris from nearly 20,000 downed trees and limbs

  • Planning for Woody Debris Removal and Safe Storage: Woody debris from downed trees and limbs is cleared and stored separately from household and other debris because it poses increased fire risks and has the potential to spread Asian beetle infestations. The natural decomposition of wood chips causes temperatures to rise within the debris pile, creating a risk of combustion, which occurred last year during the Hurricane Irene cleanup
  • Cars and Boats:
  • Widespread coastal flooding also damaged 10,000 recreational boats and 100,000 personal vehicles, many of which were carried by floodwaters onto streets, sidewalks, and private property.

  • Although the City regularly tows vehicles for parking violations, it did not have a plan to manage a tow operation of this scale. Within 10 days after the storm, the City had put a contract in place to tow and store damaged cars and boats, and had instituted a process for the public to locate and reclaim their property. In total, the City towed approximately 3,400 cars and 180 boats, including 60 derelict boats that washed up on City parks in Staten Island. 
  • Community Recovery Services (page 25)
  • The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City supplemented this food distribution by partnering with the NYC Food Truck Association to give out more than 278,000 free hot meals at several locations starting November 6 in coordination with borough Community Recovery Directors and OEM, and by purchasing and coordinating the donation of groceries including fresh produce and nonperishables.
  • Key recommendation: Develop a Food and Water Distribution Task Force and Action Plan to systematize the City’s response operations and ensure that they are activated before a coastal storm

  • Key recommendation: Develop a vulnerable populations/homebound doorto-door service Task Force and Action Plan that includes specific operational timelines and leverages community groups and other advocacy organizations, as well as state
    and federal resources. This plan will leverage the work of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and improved staff training to coordinate data collection and sharing.
  • Volunteers utilized: Volunteers, including the NYC Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), corporate groups, individuals, and community organizations knocked on doors, mucked out homes, cleaned up parks, and staffed grassroots neighborhood distribution centers

  • Business Resumption: The City, through the New York City Industrial Development Authority (IDA), also issued emergency sales tax letters to waive up to $100,000 in New York City and New York State sales taxes for up to 250 businesses on materials purchased for recovery efforts.

At the end of the report, the City details the results of the survey they distributed after Sandy. The results are incredible–probably worth another article.