Always be prepared is their motto on disasters


By Brooke Edwards

Crippling power outages only strike the outer boroughs. Destruction-wreaking hurricanes are confined to the Southeast and Gulf Coast.

That kind of thinking could be a disaster, say Rick Panson, a member of Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2, and New York University community outreach officials.

C.B. 2 and N.Y.U. are partnering to help prepare Village residents and businesses in case of a widespread disaster.

They’re jointly hosting a series of monthly educational meetings, distributing emergency-preparedness materials and working to create Community Emergency Response Teams that are trained to assist during disaster situations.

“The Red Cross did a survey in May of ’06 that showed many households in the city are not prepared for a disaster,” said Christine Shakespeare, associate director of City and Community Relations at N.Y.U.’s Office of Government and Community Affairs.

“We have a federally funded research center at N.Y.U., called the Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response,” Shakespeare said, “and they have been very successful.” She said her office had been looking for a way to bring the findings and advice from the center to the public when Panson, the chairperson of C.B.2’s Environment Committee, approached them.

“Maria Derr [Board 2’s chairperson] had assigned emergency preparedness to my committee in the summer of last year,” Panson explained. “When I saw the magnitude of what was involved, I immediately went to N.Y.U. and asked for help.”

Panson said there are abundant materials available through the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross, but he needed to figure out how to disseminate the information to the public.

“It’s been a challenge to come up with specific plans,” Shakespeare agreed.

She said the first step they took was to plan meetings geared toward different sectors of the public, where people could become educated on disaster preparedness and share their ideas for how to spread the word.

There have been four meetings so far, and both Shakespeare and Panson said turnout has been good.

“There have been hundreds of people who have come forward to help,” Panson said, “and it keeps growing.”

For the month of March, the team will focus on reaching out to local businesses to seek financial support and make them aware of how they can help.

“There is absolutely no funding from Community Board 2,” Panson said of the board, which is allocated only a barebones budget by the city. “N.Y.U. has taken the lead and provided all of the funding so far.” This includes refreshments and free emergency-preparedness materials for people attending the informational meetings.

To expand the program, Panson said he plans to speak with groups like Chase, H.S.B.C. and Washington Mutual banks to get them to donate emergency items, such as keychain flashlights.

Other planned topics for future meetings include taking care of pets during emergencies, Department of Health and interfaith disaster services, and preparing for heat waves.

“It’s really just about heightened awareness, and getting people to think about what they would do in these situations,” Shakespeare said.

One idea that emerged from the public meetings so far is to use street fairs to bring attention to the cause.

Shakespeare said they are planning a fair where vendors will sell materials that are used to make up “go bags,” which are designed by the Red Cross for people to keep on hand in case of emergencies. The bags include items like packets of water, a heat-retaining foil blanket, nutrition bars, a flashlight and a first-aid kit.

Panson also recently received confirmation from the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit that C.B. 2 will be given a free table at all future street fairs in the Board 2 area, at which they can distribute disaster-preparedness information and materials.

Beyond education, a primary focus of the C.B. 2 and N.Y.U. partnership is to create a group of local residents who are certified as a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT.

The CERT concept was first developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985, and has since spread to communities in all 50 states.

The L.A.F.D recognized that, in the early stages of a major disaster, many people would be on their own until emergency personnel were able to respond. As a result, they decided to provide training so citizens can act on their own until help arrives, or if the police and fire departments are overwhelmed in case of large-scale disasters, such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.

CERT training involves a commitment of about three hours once a week for 11 weeks. Members are trained in skills such as how to keep a perimeter safe around a disaster site, basic first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (C.P.R.) and how to direct traffic.

“You need to have at least about 30 people before the O.E.M. will come and provide the training,” Panson said. He didn’t think they would have that type of commitment in C.B. 2 until at least May of this year, but said, “We probably have enough people to start CERT training now.”

There are currently 48 CERT teams across the five boroughs, including one in Tribeca and Soho.

“C.B. 1 has the largest CERT team in the country with 284 members,” Panson said.

Though the C.B. 1 CERT team was developed primarily in response to 9/11, Panson insists that C.B. 2’s fledgling program was not.

“It’s not about terrorism,” he said. “It’s about blackouts and floods and snowstorms.”

Panson recalls years ago when he lived in New Jersey and saw a storm cause the Hudson River to flood PATH train stations.

“I realized how powerful nature can be,” he said.

This threat became a reality after seeing the disastrous response to Katrina.

“You never know what Mother Nature is gonna throw at us,” Panson said. Indeed, significant areas of Downtown Manhattan — such as parts of the Lower East Side and Hudson Square — would be submerged if a powerful-enough hurricane were ever to hit New York Harbor.

Panson also said the blackout last summer in Queens played a large role in motivating C.B. 2’s response.

“It affected over 100,000 people for weeks,” Panson said. It caused him to question, “What would we do if something like that happened in the city [Manhattan]? What if we were without heat and electricity for days at a time?”

He recalls that people responded during the Queens power outage by taking to the streets, passing out water to those who had been without it for days.

“It’s a grassroots effort,” Panson said. “It’s kind of a commitment to old-fashioned community service and the time when people would know their neighbor’s name and look out for them.”

He said he has seen this generosity and resilience time and again in New Yorkers, and doesn’t doubt that the public will always respond in the same way.

“It’s just a matter of organizing people and having a plan in place,” Panson said.

The CERT group also plans to bring disaster preparedness to local schools.

Panson would like to hold schoolwide meetings beginning in September at which students are educated about what to do in emergencies. He said he has seen some excellent plans already in place at different sites, but sees a need to share the plans so that all schools have coordinated efforts in place.

For Panson, being prepared is not being scared or thinking the worst. Instead, he says, “It’s about a sense of security.”

Panson, who has been a member of C.B. 2 for several years, said he has not applied for reappointment this April. Instead, he said, he’s realized he wants to dedicate himself to building CERT in the district.

“My hope,” Panson said, “is that by next year we will have 300 to 500 people who are aware and have been educated about disaster preparedness, and that it will just grow exponentially from there.”

For more information about local disaster-readiness training, call Community Board 2 at 212-979-2272 or visit cb2manhattan.org/contact.html.