After Sandy, city & local leaders say they’re ready to help vulnerable in next emergency

Downtown Express file photo by Sam Spokony Smith Houses residents carrying supplies delivered by the National Guard after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

Downtown Express file photo by Sam Spokony
Smith Houses residents carrying supplies delivered by the National Guard after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  Lessons from Superstorm Sandy has the city stepping up its storm preparedness efforts with attention being paid to seniors and those with special needs.

It has been almost two years since Superstorm Sandy hit on Oct. 29, 2012, and the city says it is better equipped to respond, but of course, the true test will not happen until another emergency event occurs.

“After Sandy we did an evaluation of what went well and what needed improvement,” said Nancy Greco Silvestri, spokesperson for the Office of Emergency Management, which helps coordinate the city’s response in a disaster.

The city developed 14 additional playbooks to explain operations before, during and after an emergency — especially for a coastal storm — informed by its May 2013 Hurricane Sandy After Action report.

“A number of them particularly addressed the needs that we saw among the special needs population and seniors,” she said in a phone interview.

There are nearly 39,000 people over the age of 65 in Lower Manhattan, according to the Lower Manhattan NY Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, which was released in March 2014. Sandy-caused power outages “disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, including seniors and tenants of public housing, who were stranded with limited access to vital services,” according to the report.

One of the big lessons that emerged from Sandy was about emergency canvassing, which is physically going door to door to check on residents, said Greco Silvestri.

The city has created a whole new playbook around post-emergency canvassing. The strategy describes a coordinated citywide outreach for residents and assessing their needs — including medical and health services, medication, do they have heat or water, do they need to be evacuated and do they need to be transferred to a shelter.

During Sandy, medical professionals also went with teams to knock on doors, which is something that came together after the fact. This is now a protocol that is part of a fully fleshed-out plan, she said.

Part of the response during Sandy was the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, who works with the city and state’s O.E.M. Now, the organization is making sure to talk to patients on a regular basis about emergency preparation and the importance of Go Bags. Medication for seniors is an integral component.

“We’ve learned in our work, especially around Hurricane Sandy, that the general recommendations to people are that they have three days supply of medication,” said Eloise Goldberg, vice president for providers’ services for Queens, Nassau and Suffolk countries. “We have moved away from that because we realized that when there is a serious event, three days is not sufficient.”

The nurses group now recommends that its patients have a two-week supply of medication, Goldberg said in a phone interview. Depending on the approaching season — hurricane, summer, winter — patients are advised what to have on hand, in addition to non-perishable food, batteries and flashlights.

Aixa Torres, president of the Smith Houses Tenant Association, saw firsthand what happened during Sandy and Irene. Sandy damaged some apartments so badly that they are still empty two years later, said Torres in a phone interview.

Two buildings in the Lower East Side’s Alfred E. Smith Houses are more vulnerable to flooding, she said. During Sandy, there was no power or water. Torres used Facebook to communicate with the adult children of seniors living in the building.

“We don’t have the generators that we need,” said Torres. “Because of Sandy we’re getting them.”

The New York City Housing Authority social service works with the buildings’ management to maintain a list of seniors and those with special needs. Residents fill out a form that NYCHA uses to keep track. Torres said that Go Bags have been hand delivered to seniors.

“There is a necessity for us to be prepared,” she said. “We have to be our neighbors keepers.”

The city’s Office of Emergency Management also works very closely with VOAD, which stands for volunteer organizations active in disaster. The volunteer group works with several non-profits, such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Meeting with VOAD has helped delineate roles community groups can play in the government’s response, according to O.E.M.

In terms of sheltering, the city has expanded its emergency supply stockpile to include other items such as canes, walkers, additional wheelchairs and medical equipment. The stockpile supports 70,000 New Yorkers for seven days, said Greco Silvestri.

The shelters have also improved their accessibility features for those with special needs. The city operated a number of special medical needs shelters during Sandy, and since then has added signage to the facilities and clarified agencies’ roles and responsibilities. For example, a resident may need specific treatments or medications from a healthcare professional rather than a shelter manager, she said.

There has been more training as well as operational exercises at the shelter themselves.

During Sandy, the hurricane evacuation zones were based on maps from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2003 data. The N.O.A.A. updates its data every ten years. In 2013, when they released new data, the city updated its hurricane evacuation zones.

“So based on the new scientific data we increased the evacuation zones from the three that existed during Sandy to six evacuation zones that we have currently and that allows for more flexibility in evacuation decision making,” explained Greco Silvestri.

This helps in making sure that the city is not over or under evacuating and targeting the area that’s most likely to experience life-threatening storm surge based on the particular storm that’s approaching, she said.

The six zones are ranked by risk, with Zone 1, which includes parts of Lower Manhattan, the most likely to flood.

The O.E.M. partnered with the National Weather Service to launch a public awareness campaign called “Know Your Zone,” in June of this year. They placed ads in newspapers as well as online, targeted subway platforms and buses, and tried something new: putting Know Your Zones ads on over 500,000 coffee cups that one gets at the local deli.

“So if you were, for example, in Zone A during Sandy, you could be in Zone 1 or Zone 2 under the new system,” she said.

People can look up their zone or call 311, which will also tell residents where the nearest evacuation center is.

The O.E.M. went to local precinct councils, community boards and sent a letter to every home in Zones 1, 2 and 3. Frank Lowe, who works for the O.E.M. and is his eighties, has focused on nursing homes in Zones 1 and 2 to discuss planning and preparation with his peers. The city also distributes Ready New York guides with new tips learned from Sandy that encourage residents to develop a plan and have their Go Bag ready.

“After Sandy struck, we learned that there had to be better planning for getting flood zone residents the information they need, and specific plans in place to serve seniors and other homebound individuals,” said Councilmember Margaret Chin in an email statement.

Chin introduced legislation for the O.E.M and other city agencies to develop emergency preparedness guidelines for buildings, including information such as whether a building is in a flood zone. She also co-sponsored a law last year that required the city to assist vulnerable and homebound individuals through an outreach and recovery plan.

The new laws “will allow our city to make major strides in keeping seniors and other vulnerable populations better prepared for future storm emergencies,” she said.

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