BY HEATHER DUBIN | Hurricane Sandy caught the city — and many New Yorkers — off guard last October. While anything can happen during an emergency, a little preparation goes a long way.
In fact, hurricane season officially started nearly two months ago, on June 1. Last Monday evening, Graffiti Community Ministries, a Baptist church on East Seventh Street, held a seminar to help New Yorkers learn the basic steps to take before disaster strikes. Also participating in the program were representatives of the Project Hope Crisis Counseling Program, a community support and networking group formed after Hurricane Irene and Ready New York, a campaign of the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
The evening began with a discussion group facilitated by three Project Hope counselors from Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, with 10 people from the neighborhood, who were all affected by Hurricane Sandy. They shared stories about their experiences, swapped cleanup tales and talked about how they feel now.
Sylvia Mandel, who lives on East 10th Street near Avenue B in a homesteader building, recalled how she was on the phone with a friend last October as Sandy hit the city, and then suddenly saw a gush of water come down her street.
“I saw water go up to nine feet,” she recalled. “We had to replace the boiler in our building and all the electricity. Fortunately, we run the building ourselves. We had to spend all our money in our checking account for repairs.”
Even after the replacement of the building’s vital services, the recovery process continued for a long time. There was mold to contend with, along with the loss of telephone and Internet service.
Project Hope counselors urged community members to voice their concerns about future potential storms.
“I’m still anxious about the building,” said Mandel. “The boiler is still in the basement, and we’re still very vulnerable. We have a good bunch of people in the building, but the weather, it’s not great,” she added, with a laugh.
Mary Ting, a neighbor in Mandel’s building, explained that it took 14 years for them to renovate the building’s interior.
“We’re ‘sweat equity,’ and in that way, we’re always accustomed to doing,” she said. “We were down with candles right away [during Sandy], and that made us ahead of a lot of other places that were waiting for help.”
Now that people know what to expect when a hurricane hits town, water, flashlights and candles should be high on everyone’s list. However, participants at the session still had concerns about communication, and the group brainstormed about what should be done during similar types of emergency situations — such as having the city post fliers to disseminate urgent information.
“I don’t think the city communicated with us really well,” said Anne Edris, an Avenue C community-based business owner.
For example, after Sandy, Avenue C residents were not supposed to drink the water, even after boiling it. Rather, they were instructed to drink only bottled water. Yet, no one knew this at the time.
“Three months later, the Department of Environmental Protection sent letters telling us, ‘Don’t drink the water,’” Edris said. She and other people had felt sick post-Sandy from drinking the water.
Fred Seiden, who made copies of family photos to mail to relatives prior to the storm, worried about the general public’s mentality.
“I wonder if we’ll slide just back in complacency,” he said. “That’s why I’m here, in case it happens again.”
The counselors discussed the physical, emotional and cognitive aspects of disasters, and how to reacclimate oneself to the community and re-establish a sense of normal life.
Victoria Nilsson, a coordinator for New York City Civic Corps at the Office of Emergency Management, talked about the practicalities of disaster preparedness. She travels to all five boroughs to train people for emergencies, doing one session per day.
“We’ve had a huge focus on areas affected by Sandy,” she said.
The city’s emergency plan, which covers creating a support network, packing a to-go bag and a stay-at-home kit, is not only for hurricanes. Nilsson noted there are plenty of hazards in the city besides flooding, such as “blackouts, fires, gas leaks, utilities, lack of public transportation, cell phone towers down, earthquakes, tornados and terrorism.”
The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) used to be part of the New York Police Department — but after September 11, 2001, it was made separate.
“If there’s an outbreak,” Nilsson said, “we have operations — FDNY, NYPD. But sometimes you have to have multiple agencies in place, as you’ve seen. Sometimes they don’t work well together. OEM goes in and coordinates the efforts.”
An emergency support network is step one in the plan. Have at least two people, one near you, and one not in the city, she explained.
“It’s preferable if it’s outside of the state,” said Nilsson. This is crucial so that you do not feel isolated in an emergency zone, people will be able to deliver messages, and you’ll have somewhere to stay, if necessary.
Also, write down medical conditions, allergies and prescription doses.
“It’s very important,” advised Nilsson. “Even though it’s personal, have it on you.”
Make sure you list your blood type, any devices you may need, and contact information for doctors, pharmacies and health insurance.
Figure out reliable transportation. Add friends who may have cars to your list, plus taxi service numbers.
As for when public transportation goes down, Nilsson said, “They say three days, but it can take a lot longer. If you need to get somewhere, make sure you have transportation in your plan.”
She also recommended organizing a community carpool if there are there are neighbors with serious health needs.
If you are stuck during an evacuation period, Nilsson urged calling 911 instead of 311, which would take a lot longer to get a response.
Give a photocopy of your plan to people in your support network, and keep a copy on you at all times, she said.
“Not everyone speaks English, and there’s no guarantee that first responders speak another language [than English],” Nilsson added. She recommended writing down medical issues, such as “I’m a diabetic,” or any other relevant phrases, in English on a 3-by-5 index card.
Also, know where you are supposed to evacuate, and make sure you have items of value insured that are left behind, the meeting was told. A shelter situation is not always an option for families; sometimes it might be easier to bring a relative with health issues to your house to better monitor food and medicines.
Hurricane maps were released by the city Monday in 11 languages with updated changes for flood zones. Type a specific address at maps.nyc.gov/hurricane/ to locate your flood zone and a nearby emergency shelter.
A to-go bag, intended for one person, includes the basics for a hurried departure.
“No originals — have copies of your passport and license,” Nilsson explained, “a thumb drive [USB flash drive] and your Rx’s.”
“Also, don’t forget comfortable walking shoes,” she added.
“Have a piece of mail with your name on it,” she said. “For security reasons, if you’re forced to evacuate, have something that proves you live there.”
“You should have cash in your go bag,” she continued. “Ones and fives, nothing larger because people take advantage of you in an emergency situation, unfortunately.”
An animal should have its own to-go bag as well. Make sure to have food and water for pets — dogs, cats and snakes are allowed in shelters — and copies of documentation.
When you are forced to stay at home, or “sheltering in place,” you should have enough food and supplies for three days.
“It’s basically a go bag, but more of it,” Nilsson said. “One gallon of water per person per day, nonperishable foods, flashlights and batteries.”
The city is currently in the process of developing an emergency app for cell phones. If your cell phone doesn’t work, listen to a battery-operated or hand-crank radio for updates.
Nilsson asked the group in closing when they were supposed to prepare their plan. “As soon as we get home, and before the next emergency,” joked a group member.