New York Recovery By the Numbers: Hurricane Sandy

New York Recovery By the Numbers

Release date: February 22, 2013.

Release Number: NR-177.

NEW YORK — Disaster assistance to New York survivors of Hurricane Sandy:
•$2.4 billion in National Flood Insurance Program payments made to policy holders
•Nearly $909.9 million in FEMA grants approved for individuals and households•$788.5 million for housing assistance
•$121.4 million for other needs

•$1.07 billion in SBA disaster loans approved for homeowners, renters and businesses
•$669 million approved in FEMA Public Assistance grants to communities and some nonprofit organizations that serve the public
•5.3 million cubic yards of debris removed (95 percent)
•268,290 people contacted FEMA for help or information
•179,516 housing inspections completed
•160,131 visits to Disaster Recovery Centers
•More than 500 voluntary agencies involved in recovery
•25 languages used to communicate assistance information to survivors

Rise of the Remote Volunteer

This is a great idea that provides opportunities for volunteers and leverages more resources at a reduced burden to provide assistance to those in need!  Reblogged from


People are wonderful.

After a disaster, there is a flood of goodwill that pours into communities to help with the local recovery effort. These volunteers and donors come not only from within the community, but from areas all over the US.


The Problem
Unfortunately, it is hard for someone in California to help someone in New York in a meaningful way — they would have to travel to the devastated community. This is not only costly, but also causes an unnecessary influx of people to an unsafe disaster area.

The Remote Volunteer
We’re helping change this pattern and allow people across the country to volunteer meaningfully without rushing into a disaster zone. Using the platform, a California resident has the ability to help in a New York recovery effort, without ever leaving their home. We’re seeing a new class created – the remote volunteer. Since the software…

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Hurricane Sandy was a Surprise?

The second to last paragraph of this ABC News article contains a pretty shocking statement made by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “The city was not expecting Sandy.”  Really?  I think Mayor Bloomberg should have spoken to the good folks in his Emergency Management agency.  Or read one of the several reports cited in this article.  Or spoken to Michael Balboni who has been involved in emergency management and homeland security in New York State for many years.  Or looked at a map.

Optimistically, I think the Mayor’s intent here was to say that the chances of something like Hurricane Sandy happening were so low that there wasn’t much focus on it.  I’m still not thrilled with that, either, but I think that’s where he was going.

Folks, while the chance of such a strong system making landfall in the greater New York City area was pretty slim, it was still a possibility – and a very dangerous one.  A possibility, in fact, that a great deal of discussion and preparation had gone into.  The preparations that were done were good, but clearly not enough.  There needed to be massive investments of resilient, disaster mitigating infrastructure that would protect against the impacts of a storm such as this.  But we’re not too late.  We can still do these things.  Sadly, there isn’t a lot of money behind it, but we need to engage the political momentum behind this storm – just as we’ve seen in the aftermath of other major disasters such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina – which have funded massive projects.  We’ve seen ideas like a giant sea wall, which I’ve previously blogged about.  Or the mitigation projects engineered in, under, and around the city of Hong Kong, which I’ve also recently blogged about.  All these things are possible and very much necessary for the City of New York and other high risk coastal areas.

It’s time for our elected officials to take emergency management seriously.  The investments made in preparedness and mitigation can drastically reduce the loss of lives and property.

Disaster Preparedness – Hong Kong

Seal of Hong Kong

Seal of Hong Kong

I’m interrupting my series on exercise program management (which I’m sure I’ll do several more times) to highlight a news spot I first saw on last night’s NBC News.  The segment was about Storm Preparedness in Hong Kong.  In it they briefly outline the threats to Hong Kong, including being struck by a cyclone seven times a year on average, and they highlight the preparations they’ve taken.  These preparations include underground reservoirs to contain flood waters and runoff and a system of barrier fences to mitigate against landslides.  I always like to see how other people around the world are prepared for their hazards.  Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and other places around the globe have come up with innovative ways to protect themselves from natural disasters.  Comparisons were made in this brief segment between NYC and Hong Kong – with the silent inference that if these measures are already being taken elsewhere, then certainly the City of New York can do it.

One thing I noticed wasn’t actually discussed in the video – they showed a brief clip of a Hong Kong area news broadcast which was alerting citizens. Broadcasts are the cornerstone of their notification and alert system and use levels of ‘signals’ to communicate the severity of the threat (the Hong Kong broadcast clip that NBC includes shows them issuing a Signal 10, their most serious).  An easy internet search led me to the Hong Kong Security Bureau which handles emergency management.  This preparedness guide explains their signal system and shows how they color code other hazards based on level of severity such as wild fires and storms.  Their documents are in both Chinese and English.

A little more poking around their website found versions of their contingency plans.  I quickly perused their contingency plan for natural disasters which seemed to include all the right elements.  Certainly, with an average of seven cyclones annually along with the threat of wild fires and landslides all around the city, Hong Kong is well versed in preparedness.  While a quick search for any studies on citizen preparedness didn’t come up with much, I’m hopeful that the preparedness message is getting to them as well.  The broadcast indicated that Hong Kong had recently suffered through a storm event of similar strength as Hurricane Sandy, and survived with no fatalities.  Based on this alone, it would seem to me that the citizens of Hong Kong do take this seriously.

We can always learn from others – especially those who haven’t been jaded by our way of doing things, which I think more often than not holds us all back.  We need to look beyond our borders and share ideas.  It seems to be done in many other fields, but not so much in emergency management.

NYC Transportation Post Hurricane Sandy

This study – Transportation During and After Hurricane Sandy – was brought to my attention by Claire Rubin by way of her blog.  Thank you Claire!

This is a great study and very timely.  Having worked with these transportation entities in the past, I can attest that what they have accomplished is not easily done.  The variety of agencies that cover the array of transportation systems and modes in the greater NYC area creates challenges – City agencies, State agencies, and multi-state authorities.  Each owns not only their own modes, but their own infrastructure as well.  They also have their own reporting chain, making coordinated decision-making a challenge.  Additionally, any decisions made that impact transportation systems must also consider evacuations.  Systems and infrastructure can’t be shut down until evacuations have been effected.  The folks on Long Island have to move to higher ground or out of the area completely before bridges are shut down around NYC.

They have come a long way through the last several years.  The study mentions some significant flooding in 2004 and 2007 in which lessons were learned.  We also conducted an exercise, the largest of its kind at the time, in the summer of 2008 simulating landfall of a hurricane in the NYC metro area.  This exercise provided great feedback and spurred changes to both state and local plans.  In 2011, Irene came up the coast, eerily following a track very similar to our simulated hurricane in 2008.  Plan improvements were made again, and they will be yet again in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

A significant item that was barely touched upon in this paper is the role of the private sector.  Much of the impact of private sector policy is demonstrated on page 25 of the study, where we see that prior to the hurricane only 2% of New Yorkers telecommuted, whereas following the hurricane (November 1-2) 22% telecommuted.  It’s great to see that so many companies saw the sense in allowing employees to telecommute instead of contributing to the transportation nightmare that occurred on these days.  I would challenge more private entities to do the same!  The best way to implement this, of course, is to include it in your business continuity plan.

In Emergency Management it is not only important that we improvise, adapt, and overcome; we must also learn and change.  We must turn lessons observed into lessons learned by creating a corrective action plan and actually implementing these changes.  It’s positive to see these types of documents, all After Action Reports (AARs) in their own right, which use facts and observations to highlight what went well and what needs to be improved upon.  The challenge is making these changes.  Change, good or bad, is stressful and counterintuitive to us.  We default to what is comfortable (i.e. ‘the way we’ve always done things’).  Change may require funding – sometimes vast amounts of it.  Some change is drastic, some subtle, some long-term, some immediate.  Nonetheless, with the ultimate goal of saving lives, we must change.  That, if anything, is our burden.

Power Restoration Post-Disaster: How Long is Too Long?

Homeland Security Today ran an article reprinted from an AP article titled Power Outage Time After Sandy Not Extraordinary.  The article outlines an AP analysis of outage times from other hurricanes and storms and compares these to the duration of outages experienced by customers as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  To be honest, I’m not sure that the science behind this study is totally sound (it appears they compared only the duration of outages) as there are many factors involved in such a comparison to make it meaningful (such as type and age of infrastructure, damage to infrastructure, strength of hurricane, etc.).  That said, their apples to oranges comparison does lead to some legitimate statements.

I’m certainly not intending to diminish the issues associated with prolonged power outages.  For many it is an inconvenience (and we are extremely over reliant on electrical energy), but it does impact the health and well-being of a good portion of our population – especially in temperature extremes.  Through my experience in emergency management, however, it seems that many people are quite vocal about even the shortest of power outages.  These complaints quickly become political.  I even recall several years ago being pressured by a governor to ensure that power was restored prior to the Superbowl.  Yes, these things are important – practically and politically – but we also need to be realistic and understanding of the situation.

That situation comes down to the battle being fought by the utility companies.  Energy utilities are regulated, meaning that they are constantly bombarded by politicians and special interest groups.  Part of this regulation requires them to have disaster plans in place to address emergency outages and restoration.  With the experience of working 19 federally declared disasters, I’ve seen utility companies in action time and again – and to be completely honest, they impress the hell out of me.  They mobilize massive fleets of not only their own people, vehicles, and equipment but also those of other utility companies from far and wide as part of an elaborate and often used mutual aid system.  These crews need to be supervised, fed, housed, and supplied.  The logistics of power restoration is a massive undertaking – especially after a regional event such as Hurricane Sandy, where companies up the coast and throughout the northeast are all competing for the same resources – especially utility poles.

Utilities conduct restoration efforts in priority, first addressing urgent needs, such as hospitals and nursing homes, while also trying to effect repairs of their energy superstructure, such as primary distribution lines and substations.  After that, they need to literally examine every line in their system – with priority given to those that feed larger populations.  This takes time.  Consider that they are initially fighting lingering weather conditions and may be held back by additional foul weather such as heavy rains and high winds which can hinder their efforts and even set them back with additional damages.  After a storm, they are also working on clearing debris so they can safely access their infrastructure.  Combined, this is a lot of time, effort, and resources – all of which costs a lot of money.

There is no benefit to a utility company dragging their feet on a restoration effort.  Given the expenses and the negative press, they want to finish it as quickly as they possibly can.  Can they do it better?  Of course – there is always room for improvement.  The article says that “…Sandy caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states, the highest outage total ever.”

The utility restoration effort found an unlikely ally – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who applauded their work.  A lesson other governors should probably learn.  Let’s work with them and support their efforts instead of being so quick to criticize.

Electric Grid Vulnerabilities

Government Security News (GSN) just published an article ( about the recent declassification of documents identifying that our electric grid is still vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Really?  I’m not sure there needed to be a classified document in the first place.  The vulnerability of our grid should be pretty obvious.

The report was focused on the vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks – but thankfully did at least acknowledge that impacts can be caused by natural disasters (by the way, the lights are still out on Long Island).  Terrorist vulnerabilities absolutely do exist, though.  Our energy infrastructure is very open, physically and virtually.  Generally, power generation facilities have decent security – particularly nuclear power plants.  Security does drop notably with other facilities, especially hydro-generation plants, which should have the same measure of security as nuclear power plants as most of them are associated with a dam, which, if breached not only knocks out power generation but also is bound to impact a population catastrophically.

Most energy sub-stations are not staffed, and while there is passive security in place, such as fencing, these can obviously be overcome easily.  Utility lines stretch across our nation above and below ground – generally accessible with little trouble to people with malicious intent.  Remember that acts interrupting our grid may not necessarily come from Al-Qaeda, but can come from disgruntled locals as well.  Take a look at the pictures below.  These were actually taken by my father who worked for a utility company in New York State.  Shortly after these high power transmission lines were put up over 25 years ago, a local, in protest over these lines going through their land, actually unbolted the tower from the base.  They never caught the person who did it – but this is a federal crime – and taken very seriously by prosecutors and law enforcement, including security personnel of the utility companies.  This same transmission line passes through my property and my family and I have made several calls through the years to the security office of the utility company when we see people loitering around and taking pictures or notes on these towers.













In consideration of cyber attacks – guess what – they happen EVERY DAY!  Most, fortunately, are pretty weak and stopped well short of their goal.  Some do have some measure of success, penetrating fire walls and other defenses.  Some come from individuals domestically, but many are known to come from the likes of China, North Korea, and Iran – all of which ‘officially’ deny sponsoring such acts of terrorism.  Practically everything is controlled by a computer, and practically every computer is networked and accessible from the outside world by people who know how to do so.  Energy plants can be shut down, overloaded, or have safety protocols circumvented.  Scary stuff.

So what’s the result of all this?  Much more than the inconvenience of a short-term power outage, I can assure you of that.  Our energy grid is the most critical of our infrastructure.  Without it nothing works.  We’ve only scratched the surface of examples from the areas that were hit by Hurricane Sandy and still don’t yet have power.  It impacts our other critical infrastructures such as communications, hospitals, the economy, and others.  It breaks beyond discomfort and inconvenience when it endangers lives during periods of temperature extremes.  All in all we have an aging infrastructure in our nation, but not only do we need to work on replacing and improving it, we need to protect it.

Protecting NYC

This NBC News article brings about some great discussion and ideas on what can be done to protect areas like New York City from storm surge.  If you link to the article, be sure to watch the video.

Gates of a fictional seawall protecting NYC

First, I’ll put out there that I don’t completely agree with all the statements made in the article or the video.  I’m not completely sold on global climate change, but the fact of the matter is that near or below sea level areas on the coast, especially those with high populations, need better protection.  I also don’t agree with the scientist in the video that states there would have been no damage in NYC had these sea walls been in place… hurricane force winds and torrential rains cause plenty of damage all on their own.

The concept of these sea walls amazes me.  I’m certainly familiar with the smaller cousins of these structures, breakwaters, such as the one in my college town of Oswego, NY.  These sea walls, however, particularly the more high-tech versions such as the one illustrated for use around New York City in the video, appear to be extremely versatile and suitable for long-term use.  Just like we protect our infrastructure from acts of terrorism, we need to protect our infrastructure, and our people, from natural disasters.  If this project sees the light of day, it may very well be one of the largest hazard mitigation projects ever created.

Business Civic Leadership Center and Emergency Management

This morning I received my semi-regular e-mail update from the Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS) folks at the US Department of Homeland Security.  If you are in the EM/HS field and are not on LLIS, I strongly encourage you to do so.  It’s a great community of practice, facilitating the sharing of lessons learned and best practices in the field.  One document that was listed in the e-mail was The Role of Business in Disaster Response.  This document outlines case studies and best practices of businesses supporting all aspects of emergency management nationally and locally.  It was published by the Business Civic Leadership Center of the US Chamber of Commerce.  Admittedly, I was not aware of this office within the US Chamber, nor was I aware of their Disaster Program, which offers some great resources to businesses. 

I’ve blogged in the past about the importance of public-private partnerships in emergency management and the incredible positive impacts it can have.  Wal-mart, in particular, has gotten a lot of good press about their emergency business operations, and more recently since Hurricane Sandy I’ve seen some media attention given to other companies such as Home Depot, highlighting their emergency operations centers and their relief efforts.  In a presentation I saw from Wal-Mart a while back, the company highlighted three priorities in regards to emergency management: 1) take care of its people, 2) take care of its operations, 3) take care of its communities.  Just these three priorities say a lot about the company.  They realize their people are their most important assets.  Next, they strive to ensure business continuity.  Lastly, with their business operations now being able to support it, they take care of the communities they have a presence in.  What a great business model!

The integration of the private sector into emergency management needs to be at all levels.  The National Operations Center (NOC), run by the US Department of Homeland Security, includes private sector representatives.  How can this be improved?  At the state level, many states either include private sector representatives in the State Emergency Operations Center or have a separate but connected Business Operations Center, solely focused on the coordination of private sector efforts.  Both of these options help expedite private sector resources to emergency management efforts – especially when used as an extension of the EOC’s supply unit.  There is also a recognized expertise between private sector and public sector emergency managers.

County and local emergency management programs can also benefit.  Where national and international companies are usually found at the NOC and state EOCs, the local management of these chains can work with county and local EOCs.  Also, don’t discount the value of small businesses in the area.  They, too, have a wealth of knowledge and access to resources.  Every community should form a disaster business alliance of some sort, or welcome private sector involvement with local VOADs.  You can work with local chambers of commerce to make this happen.  I’ve established a great relationship between my company, Emergency Preparedness Solutions, with my local chamber of commerce and have been providing information to members on emergency preparedness and business continuity through meetings and articles, as well as a presentation that I’ll be doing in a few months.

Never think that emergency management is too big of a concept for your local community.  It’s not just something done by FEMA or by the state.  In a disaster we need to help our neighbors and our communities.  The biggest impact is always locally.  Establish those relationships now and make a difference!

Veterans in Disaster Response

I’m really not a TED Talk junkie.  Honest.  But today, while surfing through my usual web sites, I hit the TED blog.  I came across a great short (5 minute) presentation on Team Rubicon by their founder, Jake Wood.  The concept of Mr. Wood’s presentation is the story of why he founded Team Rubicon.  Team Rubicon is a disaster relief organization that uses veterans.  It’s not a new idea, really – Reservists, National Guard members, and retired veterans have been an important part of emergency response going back to the days of Civil Defense.  It makes perfect sense, really.  These folks are trained in essential skills and they function well in an organized structure.  They have critical thinking skills and have worked in austere environments.  In emergency management and emergency response we have learned so much from the military – our organizational structure, the Incident Command System, is based on military principles.  We work with military components on a regular basis, and many state emergency management offices are still even components of their state’s National Guard offices – another throwback to the days of Civil Defense.

Veterans have an important value to us, yet we don’t do enough for them.  They have risked their lives for our freedoms and so many return home jobless and feeling lost.  I certainly can’t imagine what it’s like to live in Iraq or Afghanistan for such a long period of time seeing horrible things and wondering if the people walking by you, those who you are trying to provide a better life for, have a bomb strapped to their bodies.  How can anyone be expected to return to a ‘normal’ life after that?  We need to do a better job of reintegration, that’s very obvious.  The sheer number of homeless veterans and veteran suicides is staggering – and it’s shameful that we allow it to happen.

Team Rubicon provides a focus, a purpose, and an environment that veterans are comfortable functioning within – and even better yet they aren’t  carry a rifle.  They are saving lives!