Volume 20, Number 43 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN - MARCH 7 -- 13, 2008

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Tom Sunderland, right, a professor at John Jay College and a Community Emergency Response Team instructor, discusses options with Downtown CERT members at a recent drill in Battery Park City.

Downtown emergency teams create a crisis for practice

By Julie Shapiro

In a small community room in Battery Park City, before a hushed crowd of nearly 100, Hank Wisner described the unfolding of a disaster.

On Tues., May 13, at the beginning of rush hour in an unknown year, nerve gas spreads through the subway tunnels from Bowling Green to 42nd St. Hundreds of people are dead and thousands more pour into the hospitals — and then, within the hour, a series of additional chemical explosions incapacitate the hospitals, too.

Phone lines are dead and computers are down. First responders can’t penetrate the West Side below Canal St., where at least 50,000 people need to evacuate — immediately.

The scenario Wisner described hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, Lower Manhattan’s Community Emergency Response Teams want to be ready.

Four local CERT chapters, comprised of civilians who receive emergency training, met Feb. 25 for a tabletop drill. They had an hour to draft a response to “Red Cobra Shaking,” a fictional chemical attack.

“We’ll assume no one will come to help us,” Wisner told the crowd. “It’s an unlikely scenario, but that’s what we’re going to use.”

In an atmosphere of organized chaos, the CERT members broke into groups and started debating how to save lives.

The Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates the response, envisioned spray-painted paths to route fleeing residents and workers through decontamination stations before packing them onto boats bound for New Jersey. The Search and Rescue Team planned to sweep residential buildings, knocking on doors and documenting those who could not evacuate.

On the medical team, logistical questions abounded — how to triage, how to decontaminate, how CERT members should protect themselves — but moral questions arose as well. Dr. Patricia Hunt, who does medical work for the New York Stock Exchange, led the discussion and provided difficult answers.

“Who do we evacuate first?” she asked a circle of medical team members, who looked up at her expectantly. “Not the walking,” she said, then paused. “And not the dead.”

CERT members also debated what to do about animals. After the medical team decided to set aside part of one triage area for pets, several people questioned the devotion of resources to animals when people were hurt.

Hunt responded that she has seen patients from 9/11 and recent fires who could have escaped unscathed but went back for their pets and ended up seriously injured. Helping the animals is sometimes the best way to help the people, she said.

Across the packed room, CERT members huddled around tables, speaking loudly to be heard over the general din. They bent over hastily scribbled diagrams and took notes that quickly filled with cross-outs and revisions. Representatives from the different teams rushed from one table to the next, sharing their progress and asking for advice.

After about an hour, Wisner called the groups together to present their plans.

“Go with what you’ve got,” he said as the teams rushed to finish. “There are people out there that really need us. We can’t just keep assessing the situation without making decisions.”

Anthony Notaro, chief of the Battery Park City CERT, will write a report based on the drill, highlighting what worked and what didn’t. The teams need to be more flexible about shifting members to the most pressing needs, he said. For example, the CERTs might not have enough resources to go door-to-door evacuating apartments and it might be more productive for the Search and Rescue Team to help direct traffic instead.

Jean Grillo, chief of the Tribeca CERT, was happy to see the cooperation between several different teams at the drill.

“It just underscores that if something happens in Lower Manhattan, all the CERT teams are going to be needed,” she said in a phone interview. “The CERT teams need to know each other, need to train together.”

The younger, smaller teams can benefit by working with the more established groups, she said. The CERTs from Battery Park City, the city’s first official emergency team, Tribeca, Southbridge Towers and the Borough of Manhattan Community College attended the drill, the first time those four groups met. Chinatown’s CERT was invited but did not participate.

To join a CERT chapter, residents need to take a 10-week training course and pass a test. There are no physical requirements, and most members have no former experience in disaster response, Notaro said.

Before the drill, Deborah DiIorio, a Gateway Plaza resident, sat talking with other members of the Marine Search and Rescue team. She got involved in Battery Park City’s CERT when it formed shortly after 9/11, and more recently became a member. After 9/11, DiIorio returned home to Battery Park City to help rebuild the neighborhood, but said she felt haunted by the memory of her helplessness during that disaster.

“We felt lost — what if it happened again?” DiIorio said. “It’s very empowering [that] there were things we could do.”

With the marine team, DiIorio practices fueling and starting boats in the North Cove, which could transport hundreds of people to safety in New Jersey. She also works with the Animal Search and Rescue Team.

Like DiIorio, Wisner, special assistant to the chief of the B.P.C. CERT, said 9/11 made him see the importance civilian responders in New York City. “We need to start thinking outside of the box and get act our together,” he recalled thinking. “[We need to figure out] what do until the government shows up.”

Wisner hatched the scenario based on his work as a medic in Israel. With civilian responders there, he has often rehearsed mass decontamination actions.

After the drill, Wisner emphasized that CERTs are meant to supplement first responders, not replace them.

“We know the government is more prepared, more experienced — that’s why we pay our tax dollars,” he said. “But in the event they can’t respond, we want to do the best we can.”






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