Sunday, November 25, 2012

Forklifts, big trailers and Hurricane Sandy

I am sure that New York City and the American Red Cross aren't resting on their laurels about how perfectly they played their response to Hurricane Sandy. Emergency management is logistics, and doing logistics in a big city is tough. After two weeks spent in NYC during the Sandy response, I feel like FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, who recounted his response to a reporter's question about how he knew so much about emergency management by saying: "I've been doing this for so long that I've made every possible mistake and learned from it."

While in NYC I had the great opportunity to work with the Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation and the highly professional NYC Office of Emergency Management. I saw both organizations making mistakes with the exceptional clarity of one who has made the same damn mistakes myself. And some more than once.

A lot of people have years and decades of disaster experience but very few have experience in disasters dealing with millions of people. And of those who have experience in such disasters, most were operating at the street or shelter level, and not in the big emergency operations centers. I have spent most of my emergency management career working in the big EOCs, places full of so much information and so little clarity about what is really happening to those people working in the cold or the heat in the affected areas.

My job in the EOC, when boiled down to its essential essence, is to make sure the people in the street and shelter have the right kind of resource, with the right capability, in the right quantity, at the right time. This sounds simple but its not easy.

The responders in the affected area are worrying about Right Now. Right Now could be the next minute, or the next hour or Today. For them, long range planning is Tomorrow. At the State EOC in Tallahassee I can't do anything Right Now. If you need something Right Now, and that resource is already positioned in the Logistic Staging Area (LSA), I can arrange to have it delivered to you tomorrow. We can't deliver it to you Right Now because all the vehicles at the LSA are out delivering resources that were requested yesterday.

If the resource you need is not in the LSA, then I have to go get it. This means that I have to arrange for the State to buy it or request FEMA to provide it. This can take 48-96 hours, at best. And if you need it Right Now, 48-96 hours sounds like Next Year. Therefore, my time horizon is never Right Now, but is focused on what I anticipate the people in the field are going to need 48-96 hours from now.

That means that I am in the prediction business. In small disasters any errors in my predictions are usually small. In big disasters the errors in my predictions have the potential to be very large. And the question is rarely about WHAT we need but rather HOW MANY. That is why I have spent many years trying to devise ways to predict the quantity of resources that we would need in a big disaster.  One of the best ways to improve predictions is to make them a collective judgment of the stakeholders involved. In Florida, we do that on the daily state mass care conference call.

What happens in big disasters is that the people in the EOCs are stuck in Right Now and aren't thinking about the next 48-96 hours. The reason they are stuck in Right Now is that they are understaffed for the size of the disaster. The reason that they are understaffed is they don't know what they don't know. You don't know what you need in a big disaster until you experience one. But big disasters don't happen that often, so few people have the experience required to deal with the more complex issues presented.

In 2009 the State of Florida ran a catastrophic hurricane exercise to test our new catastrophic hurricane plan. This was Craig Fugate's last exercise as Florida's EM Director. I was the State Mass Care Coordinator in the exercise and I was overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of the problems that I had to address. At one point, I needed to be in 3 critical meetings at the same time. I learned that I was understaffed for the size of the disaster and needed to plan to do something about it should the real event happen.

Which brings me to forklifts and big trailers. The biggest and most impressive lesson that I learned while responding to the 8 hurricanes that hit Florida in a 16 month period during 2004 and 2005 was the critical importance of having lots of big trailers and forklifts.

In big disasters involving millions of people you need to fill the big 48 ft or 53 ft trailers and direct them to a staging area near to or within the disaster area. The staging area is important because when you order the trailer loads (48-96 hours in advance) you may not know the ultimate destination for the load.

This is the most effective way to get large quantities of "stuff" to large quantities of people in a big disaster. In the 2 weeks that I spent in NYC I didn't see or hear about people using lots of big trailers and forklifts. They were using a lot of straight trucks and unloading the cargo by hand. This technique works just fine in little disasters. In big disasters you need big trailers to push the supplies as far forward into the affected area as possible and then unload them using pre-positioned forklifts.

I spoke to several people about why they didn't use more forklifts and they said that they tried. There are thousands of forklifts in NYC but they aren't where they need them for the disaster. And moving forklifts around is H-A-R-D. They're heavy and don't travel very fast.

That is why I advised the American Red Cross to get a national forklift contract for use in big disasters such as Sandy. We used these contractors in Florida to position forklifts at over 70 Point of Distribution (POD) sites in Dade and Broward Counties after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The contractors carried the forklifts in on flat bed trailers and dropped them off at the POD locations and field kitchen sites.

Another important reason to have the capability to quickly pre-position forklifts is that in a big disaster big trailers become a critical shortage item. In 2004 the Florida SERT and FEMA disrupted commerce in the Eastern United States because we rented every available trailer and filled them with disaster supplies. We needed the forklifts to empty the trailers at the field sites because we needed the empty trailer in order to go back and get more disaster supplies. And when you are trying to empty thousands of big trailers, you need a lot of forklifts.

Finally, to make this system work you need tractors to move the trailers to the field sites. The big "linehaul" tractors with the sleeper cabins are great to move trailers inter-city but don't serve as well positioning trailers in the city. The linehaul tractors move the freight from origin to the LSAs. The "city" tractors make the short trips from the LSA to the field site.  You can contract for a fleet of city tractors with drivers and a dispatcher at the LSA to make sure the supplies get to the right place at the right time.

Boy, this all sounds expensive, you must say. But in a $30 billion or $50 billion or $100 billion disaster these costs are chump change.

Besides, there are 3 types of disaster responses: Efficient, Cheap or Quick. You have to choose one. The public and our elected officials demand that it be Quick. Our job is to make it happen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The transition to long term disaster feeding in New York City after Sandy

From November 12 to November 19 I shuttled between the New York City Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in Brooklyn, the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Operation (DRO) on 49th St. in Manhattan and my hotel near Times Square. The objective of my efforts was to achieve a coordinated transition in the City to long term disaster feeding.

The New York City Emergency Operations Center in Brooklyn

The nationally developed Multi-Agency Feeding Plan Template describes the three phases of disaster feeding: Immediate, Sustained and Long Term.  In the Immediate phase disaster feeding is conducted using local production and distribution resources.  If additional resources are required, then the voluntary agencies establish a mass care feeding infrastructure consisting of field kitchens producing hot meals for distribution by Red Cross and Salvation Army vehicles. This is the Sustained Phase of disaster feeding.

As electrical power is restored to the affected homes the daily count of distributed hot meals declines and is eventually terminated. The cessation of the distribution of hot meals to the survivors is always and everywhere a political decision, made by the voluntary agencies in consultation with local elected officials. The end of the Sustained Phase of disaster feeding does not mean that the need has been eliminated. Rather, the means of delivering feeding support shifts to the Long Term Phase.

The two principle mechanisms for delivering long term disaster feeding are the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP) and the limited, targeted distribution of food boxes.  At the beginning of this year I knew very little about these topics so I worked with subject matter experts from the Food and Nutrition Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Feeding America and the Florida Food Bank Association to gather information. 

As I produced drafts of what became the Household Disaster Feeding document my contacts sought out additional experts who also contributed to the excellent quality of the final product. We have to produce these reference documents in this bootleg manner because getting a document through the federal agency approval process is more effort than it is worth.

We finished the document in June of this year. Five months later, when I walked into the New York City EOC, I knew that the Household Disaster Feeding Template could provide a framework by which the City of New York could devise a plan for the implementation of the Long Term Phase of disaster feeding the the city.

I arrived in the NYC EOC as a Red Cross volunteer working for the Disaster Relief Operation but without an operational role in the disaster. The reason I volunteered, and the reason that I was asked by the ARC to go to the EOC, was that I had been planning to implement a catastrophic feeding plan in Florida for over 6 years. I had technical expertise appropriate to this disaster, and I also selfishly wanted to bring back any lessons learned to Florida.

The Greater New York Chapter of the American Red Cross on 49th St
in Manhattan. The Sandy Disaster Relief Operation was on the 4th floor.

In any disaster feeding operation (and Sandy was my 16th hurricane) the key events requiring the most coordination are the transitions between the phases.  The disaster had already transitioned from the Immediate to the Sustained Phase. The conditions for a successful transition from the Sustained to the Long Term Phase needed to be set in place.

I had previously met with key members of the NYC emergency management team and found them to be some of the most competent and profession emergency managers that I had met in the nation. I also found the NYC emergency management team to be extremely well resourced for the difficult job of managing disasters in the city.

New York City is one of the most difficult environments I have ever encountered in which to conduct mass care. Doing anything in the city on a good day is hard. Trying to feed and shelter hundreds of thousands survivors after a disaster is a tough and complex task. 

The coordination mechanism in the city for disaster feeding is called the Food Access Task Force. The concept of Food Access was new to me but it was an apt manner of describing the feeding situation in New York. In blue skies there is a food access problem in the city. A bewildering (to me) number of government and non-government programs operated to address this issue.

Two important actors in the city are City Harvest and Food Bank of New York. These non-governmental organizations provide food to a wide network of food pantries and soup kitchens. Sandy not only added survivors with food access problems to the existing population but caused damage to the capacity of the food banks and their networks.

I played a very small role during the week that I spent working with the different stakeholders on the Food Access coordination call. During the call, which was held daily, I was able to introduce the framework outlined in the Household Disaster Feeding Template. After a number of days of discussion, the concept of transitioning from the delivery of hot meals by the city and the Red Cross to a long term feeding strategy led  by the food banks and the other voluntary agencies was agreed to by the participants on the call. The details of this transition and the manner in which the food banks and their networks will be resourced are still under discussion.

My flight home to Tallahassee took me through Miami. As I approached the Miami airport I looked out the window of the airplane at the tall buildings on the barrier islands in Broward and Dade counties.  They brought to mind the similarly situated New York areas of Long Island, the Rockaways and Staten Island. I thought of the tremendous mass care problems presented by Sandy's surge and how Florida's State Emergency Response Team would have to deal with the same issues confronting New York City.

I also thought that when, not if, a major hurricane hits southeast Florida the mass care problems will be greater than the ones I encountered in New York City after Sandy.