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.

1 comment:

  1. Any disaster no matter how big or small, still impacts all the people, families negatively. It's very important to preplan how to take care of all those folks that effected by a event such as Sandy.