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7 Years After Sandy - Part III: Is the City's Emergency Responsiveness Ready for Whatever Comes Our Way?

hurricane sandyp3

(photo: NYC Gov)

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.


That’s how many people in New York City were killed from the immediate effects of Hurricane Sandy, nearly seven years ago. Most were due to drowning, while a smaller number of those who died from the October 2012 storm were attributed to downed power lines. A CDC report from May 2013 found that 45% of drowning deaths occurred in Evacuation Zone A, which was not fully evacuated despite orders from city officials. The same report concluded that such drowning deaths are “preventable with advance warning systems and evacuation plans.”

The New York City Office of Emergency Management, responsible for communication, evacuation, and coordination during storms, shouldered much of the blame for Sandy’s disastrous impact. It was especially blamed for its procedures for lower-mobility residents, like seniors and disabled people, who often had difficulty evacuating. 

In November 2013, a federal judge ruled “that the City has violated the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the NYCHRL by failing to provide people with disabilities meaningful access to its emergency preparedness program in several ways.”

“There were a lot of things that didn’t go well” in the city’s response to Sandy, according to Thad Pawloski, Director at Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Nursing homes and hospitals in the flood zones should have been better equipped to deal with downed utilities,” Pawlowski said, as an example, though he did commend the city for having an overall effective disaster response.

Seven years later -- and as the city continues to deal with storms, blackouts, heat waves, terror attacks, and more -- one key question for New Yorkers is whether the city’s emergency management has improved so that when emergencies hit loss of life can be avoided, communication and medical care happen as efficiently and effectively as possible, and further negative ramifications are limited. Those in charge of the city’s emergency responsiveness say that it is much improved, pointing to new and updated systems in place, some based on lessons from Sandy and its aftermath.

Now called New York City Emergency Management, NYCEM’s leadership has acknowledged mistakes from Sandy. In a 2017 interview with NY1, then-commissioner of NYCEM Joe Esposito (who was not the EM commissioner during Sandy, but was a top NYPD official) admitted, “We had the evacuation — I think maybe we could have pushed that harder.” However, Esposito was adamant that “the vast majority of those people would not have died if they would have listened to the evacuation orders.”

Now, with another Sandy anniversary approaching, NYCEM is displaying its many new and updated programs as evidence that it has become smarter and more effective since the storm.

“After any emergency, we take a hard look at what went well, and areas where we need some improvement,” said Megan Pribram, NYCEM’s assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “I think that we’ve gotten a lot stronger since Sandy. We learned from that incident, and we continue to improve our plans and enhance, and I think we’re a much stronger and more resilient city as a result.”

One of the programs that NYCEM has significantly expanded since 2012 is its Advance Warning System, which provides special alerts for organizations serving people with disabilities or other functional needs. Organizations that sign up for the program, launched ten years ago, receive public preparedness emails or text messages in the event of an emergency. The program has recently grown to cover 1,900 service providers, which Pribram called a “huge increase” over pre-Sandy numbers.

Another program that has seen a major boost in reach since Sandy is Notify NYC, a public communications service that texts subscribers emergency alerts specific to their zip code. A spokesperson for the city said that Notify NYC has grown from around 140,000 subscribers before 2012 to over 765,000 as of August 6. 

Several other programs have been launched since 2012 as part of NYCEM’s larger effort to reduce complacency, including:

-Know Your Zone, an awareness campaign to make sure residents know when and where to evacuate, started in 2014. The campaign has released videos, infographics, maps of evacuation zones, a hashtag (#knowyourzone), and a virtual badge displaying hurricane zone numbers.

-The Share Your Space Survey, which aims to identify community spaces that could be used to support emergency operations, started in 2016. Through the survey, NYCEM has built a database of spaces that are available for use during emergencies, as well as for training classes and exercises.

-The Community Emergency Planning Toolkit, a customized guideline to help communities handle storm preparation, started in 2017. The toolkit is downloadable online, and a boot camp for local organizations is also available.

-The High Water Mark Initiative, a series of signs showing what level Sandy’s storm surge reached to increase awareness in vulnerable areas, also started in 2017.

-Prep Talk, a podcast covering emergency management-related topics, has had 36 episodes air since launching in 2018 (episodes average around 500 listens on Soundcloud).

“When we’re asking people to evacuate, the sun is shining, and it’s very hard to convince someone that a hurricane is on the way when they’re looking at 85 degrees on a beautiful day,” then-First Deputy Commissioner for NYCEM Calvin Drayton said at an October 2018 City Council hearing on his agency’s strategic plan. “We have to do a much better job in getting the public to adhere to the word when the mayor says to evacuate.”

NYCEM’s strategic plan itself, however, is largely focused on issues other than emergency notices and civilian preparedness. Among the goals laid out by the 2017-2021 plan are increasing coordination with community organizations and other city agencies, making the agency more responsive and flexible during crises, and “advanc[ing] the Profession of Emergency Management” in New York and nationwide.

One of the changes that Pribram of NYCEM cited in accordance with these goals is a revision of the city’s hurricane evacuation zones from three zones to six. Pribram said the change “provides us with more flexibility to evacuate for different storm types,” as it allows for more gradations in the scale of evacuation.

Pribram also noted several internal-facing improvements that NYCEM has made post-Sandy, which may make future emergencies more manageable, such as updating its debris management plan and establishing connections with more agencies and organizations to help mitigate future storm effects. After an emergency like Sandy, “we add new partners,” Pribram said, “that we realized have key roles sometimes. So we have enhanced how we actually do the coordination during emergencies as well.”

NYCEM also runs training exercises for its own staff and the staff of other agencies that play roles in emergency situations. Pribram said in August that the agency had recently held a tabletop exercise with its emergency partners as hurricane season approaches.

September is National Preparedness Month, NYCEM recently publicized, saying that it wants “New Yorkers to take the opportunity to plan for emergencies.” NYCEM held a fair “to help inform New Yorkers about the importance of being prepared” and introduced a new multilingual PSA in English and Spanish, called “Communicate When It Counts,” that “encourages New Yorkers to talk with their families to develop an emergency plan before disasters such as flooding, power outages and hurricanes strike.”

NYCEM wants New York City residents to “learn the steps to make a plan, gather supplies, and stay informed.”

One idea that has also been floated to further bolster the city’s emergency response is to institute a 211 system, which would direct 211 calls to a specialized line that includes information on the city’s many non-profit service-providers. Pribram said, however, that such a system would likely not fall under NYCEM’s jurisdiction.

The preliminary Mayor’s Management Report released in February 2019 -- which includes data for fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018 -- presents some interesting data on several NYCEM programs, with mixed results.

There was a sharp decline in visits to the Ready New York webpage, which serves as a landing page for many NYCEM programs. The site had 24,561 visits in FY2018, down from 81,570 in FY2016. The average time between an incident and a Notify NYC message going out has also moved in the wrong direction: seven minutes and 50 seconds in FY2018, up from six minutes in FY2016.

Other indicators, such as the number of tabletop exercises and participants at emergency training sessions, have remained relatively the same over time, although the agency’s goal is to eventually increase the number of exercises performed. The office’s expenditures have increased dramatically, from $35.7 million in FY2016 to $58.9 million in FY2018.

With no truly devastating storms hitting the city since Sandy, it is difficult to gauge whether NYCEM improvements and new programs have been enough, but a somewhat recent incident showed potential shortcomings.

An unexpected snowstorm in November 2018 left the city’s transportation network crippled, a crisis many blamed on poor coordination and responses from city agencies. NYCEM Commissioner Esposito was soon messily fired by Mayor Bill de Blasio, although de Blasio insisted that the move was unrelated to Esposito’s storm response; Deanne Criswell took over at the agency in mid-July of this year.

Many blamed the city’s poor response on faulty weather predictions, rather than on municipal agencies; de Blasio said in a press conference that “I don’t think it’s fair to say that the city agencies could have stopped all of this.” But the storm nevertheless displayed the city’s weaknesses when caught off-guard -- school buses, for example, were stuck for hours on city roadways that ground to a snow- and traffic-filled halt, and parents often had no way of knowing where their young children were.

For Eric Goldstein, NYC Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, the city still has not done enough to prepare for emergencies.

“There certainly is more that needs to be done, particularly in low-income areas and communities of color,” Goldstein said in a phone interview. “If you were to survey NYCHA properties, for example, you would find that there are still some very significant challenges that remain, in terms of preparedness and ensuring that handicapped people on higher floors can get the assistance they need and get the information they need. Some steps have been taken, but a bunch more needs to be done.”

Pawloski of Columbia, on the other hand, argued that the city often doesn’t get enough credit for the relative strength of its systems. “New York’s [plan] is pretty strong for an American city,” said Pawloski, who has worked with NYCEM in the past. “The coastal storm plan addressed debris management, utility restoration, mass evacuation of coastal areas and sheltering,” unlike many out-of-date federal maps and plans.

As another Sandy anniversary arrives, much of the city’s attention is focused on building out or rebuilding the city’s coastlines to better withstand the effects of major storms, through the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency and partners. The City Council recently formed a new Committee on Waterfronts and Resiliency, chaired by Council Member Justin Brannan of Southern Brooklyn, who has been surveying coastal areas across the city and plans to hold a major oversight hearing this fall, in conjunction with the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, chaired by Council Member Costa Constantinides.

Brannan recently said on the Max & Murphy podcast that they are looking at resiliency planning, preparedness for the next big storm, but also emergency management more broadly, which can range from a localized blackout in relatively unthreatening weather to much more severe instances where lives are immediately at risk across a larger swathe of the sprawling city.

On NYCEM, Brannan was supportive of the awareness work the agency does, but thinks it could do more to prevent future disasters. “I give OEM a lot of credit,” Brannan said of how the agency responds to a given emergency situation, but added he wants to have a more proactive conversation about “what they’re doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who in May put out his own coastal resiliency plan for the city while showing that the mayoral administration is not spending billions of dollars in allocated resiliency funding quickly enough, is also asking questions about emergency management plans to ensure best possible responses to crisis situations.

Some of the answers Stringer is seeking, as outlined in a September 6 letter to Mayor de Blasio, were provided to Gotham Gazette in August for this article, but the comptroller has asked for a good deal more, including related to NYCHA and emergency contracting to get needed supplies and services on a greatly expedited timeline.

“I am writing to request updates on the City’s emergency preparedness plans and the degree to which lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy have been built into the way our agencies plan, procure and prepare for the next great storm,” Stringer wrote. “As climate change escalates and sea levels continue to rise, New York City must be prepared to contend with the ever greater risk posed by hurricanes and floodwaters. Already, scientists estimate that storms on the scale of Sandy could be one-in-25-year events, rather than one-in-500-year anomalies.”

Stringer went on to request a variety of information on the city’s resiliency and emergency planning, which he sought by September 15. According to Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Stringer, the comptroller’s office has “not yet received a formal response to our letter. We look forward to reviewing the City’s emergency preparedness plans and continuing to push for robust resiliency measures to protect vulnerable communities.”

This is part three of a three-part series on '7 Years After Sandy.' Find part one here: Pieces In Place That Worked, Rebuilding Efforts That Failed and part two here: The City's Limited Resiliency Efforts Since the StormThis series is part of Gotham Gazette's work in participation with the Covering Climate Now project, which includes over 250 media outlets focusing on climate coverage in the week leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.

by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

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