“Disasters,” New York Federal Coordinating Officer Mike Byrne says, “are teachable moments.”
Byrne, along with other senior leadership at the Joint Field Office in Queens, N.Y., recently imparted some lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy to a delegation of 19 international visitors. The group included emergency managers from the United Kingdom, the Consul of Singapore in New York, Singaporean federal transportation and infrastructure officials, Korean local government officials and experts from The Brookings Institution, the private non-profit research and policy organization in Washington, D.C., including the head of the Hong Kong Police Department.
After Sandy, FEMA was inundated with international requests from people who wanted to visit and learn from the disaster, said Jessica Steinbeck, International Visitor Coordinator in FEMA’s International Affairs Division (IAD). The division’s pilot initiative, the JFO International Visitors Monthly Briefing Program, began in February at the New York JFO; so far 76 visitors from 12 countries, including the delegation that Byrne addressed in late May, have participated.
While the visitors’ backgrounds varied, they came with a common goal: to learn from FEMA’s response to the second-largest disaster in the agency’s history in the country’s largest, most densely populated, multi-lingual and vertical metropolitan area. Add to that the facts that New York City is the world’s media capital and has a complex system of government.
The briefings in late May began with an overview of FEMA from Steinbeck and ended with a presentation and tour of the JFO’s Geographic Information System. In between, the group heard from Operations Section Chief John Park Owens, External Affairs Officer Crystal Payton, Ashley Smith, Assistant External Affairs Officer for Private Sector, and Byrne.
Byrne stressed the importance of FEMA’s continuing work with hospitals, utility companies, public housing, and others to rebuild in stronger and smarter ways to reduce damage in future disasters and events.
For example, Bellevue Hospital is using new data to prepare for future storms. The hospital is considering moving its water pumps to a higher floor or installing backup pumps at street level. It also is adding connections for mobile boilers that can distribute steam for heat and hot water.
In addition, some hospitals are expanding their emergency-power distribution systems to bring generator power to critical areas such as chemotherapy facilities. Engineering experts are looking at ways to improve the protection of fuel pumps and medical gas tanks.
Other, smaller mitigation measures include elevating electrical equipment to avoid a repeat of the widespread outages - and loss of communication - that occurred during Sandy, and moving elevator pits to the ground floor so they can function during an emergency.
“It’s important to build it back so it doesn’t happen again,” he told the visitors, adding that large disasters such as Sandy in a city like New York have consequences, economic and otherwise, throughout the country.
Owens focused on FEMA’s initial response to Sandy in New York. He highlighted the 8,000 personnel from dozens of federal agencies, including FEMA, who worked as many as 15 hours a day, seven days a week for the first several weeks. They staffed disaster recovery centers opened throughout the designated counties so survivors could receive immediate, face-to-face assistance.
They also cleared debris and pumped millions of gallons of water from the New York City subway and area tunnels, among many other critical tasks.
Because of New York’s unique housing challenges (dense with high-rise apartment buildings and little available space for setting up temporary housing trailers), FEMA, working with New York City and other local governments, implemented the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program to allow many survivors to remain in their homes.
The STEP program funds certain necessary and essential measures to help restore power, heat and hot water, to help residents safely shelter-in-place in their homes pending more permanent repairs. Under the program, residents will be able to have the damage to their residence assessed and, where safe and practicable, have electricity restored and other basic repairs made.
A week after Sandy made landfall, national, state and local elections were held. “How could we prevent millions of potential voters from being disenfranchised?” Owens asked the delegation. “We put hundreds of generators at locations so people could vote.”
Payton discussed the importance of providing timely and accurate information to news media, elected officials and survivors, including those with limited English proficiency (FEMA has translated information to 26 languages for New York survivors) and access and functional needs. She also discussed the vital role social media has played during the disaster.
Smith talked about FEMA’s partnerships with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Madison Square Garden, the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission and others to get the word out to survivors about registering with FEMA for possible assistance.
Rosanna Briggs, Deputy Head of Civil Protection and Emergency Management at the Essex County Fire and Rescue Service and the Essex County Council in England, said the briefings were “incredibly useful.”
“It’s a confirmation that there are common challenges,” Briggs said. “I like the encouragement of innovation, to think outside the box. Disasters of this magnitude force us to look at new ways to ensure our communities are supported and we can learn and help others to do the same.”
It is FEMA’s International Affairs Division’s goal is to strengthen international emergency management capacity-building through information-sharing, exercising, training and technical assistance. In 2012, IAD hosted over 1,100 visitors, representing 66 countries. For more information on FEMA’s international programs, visit: www.fema.gov/international-affairs-division.