Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day 1 at the National Hurricane Conference

The first day of the National Hurricane Conference was a serious of vivid and engaging sessions on the response to Hurricane Irene from our friends in the Northeast. The New York City (NYC) Office of Emergency Management as well as representatives from the states of NJ, CT and NY filled us in as they related their challenges in sheltering and making evacuation decisions.

As I told one of them, "Welcome to our life here on the Gulf Coast."

In 2005, after witnessing the horrific images from Hurricane Katrina, the NYC OEM began doing the difficult but necessary planning required to evacuate and shelter the 8 million people in the metro area. Some of the key players in this effort, the Logistics Chief for NYC OEM, the Emergency Management Director for the NYC Department of Education, and a representative from Menlo Worldwide Logistics, spoke about their multi-year effort to develop a plan and the days that they had to execute it.

NYC has a series of shelter hubs throughout the city. They tried to make the hub locations as close to walking distance as possible. As the people arrive at the hubs, they are transported by city buses to the shelters. The supplies for all these shelters must be loaded from central warehouses and transported by truck through the city to the shelter locations.

The shelters are located in schools. The average age of the school buildings is 70 years, so many are missing conveniences such as elevators, loading docks or even front doors wide enough to admit palletized loads of freight. Visualize, if you will, hauling a truckload of bottled water, by hand, a case at a time, up several flights of stairs. Multiply that by the cots, food and other supplies necessary to stock each shelter and you get an idea of the effort required.

They talked about how their timelines to deploy these resources didn't exactly match with the Mayor's timeline for declaring a disaster. Thanks to their excellent planning, the resources were deployed to the right places at the correct times. What they hadn't planned for was picking all these supplies up again. Demobilizing the resources proved to be the more daunting task, but they worked thought it.

The discussions about the gut wrenching task of making the local evacuation decision were particularly interesting. They talked about evacuating all the hospitals and nursing homes in the designated zone. What really had an impact on everyone, the public and emergency managers alike, was when the announcements came that the subways, buses and trains were going to shut down as the storm approached. This was always in the plan, but no one could believe that it would actually happen.

I told them all that they did a great job, but they were lucky that the storm was essentially a very realistic, full-scale functional exercise. When the next time comes, and it will, they will be a lot better prepared.

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