Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Delivering Mass Care Services to high-rise buildings

With the arrival this week of Halloween, the second anniversary of Super Storm Sandy carries it's own horror show legacy. A YouTube video outlining the plight of the elderly residents of a high-rise apartment building in the Rockaways in Queens, New York City in the weeks after the storm hit is a textbook example of the consequences of not planning for the care of vulnerable populations in multistory buildings in high risk areas.

According to the New York Times, after Sandy the New York City Housing Authority lost electricity and elevators to 402 of its buildings housing 77,000 residents, with most of them also losing heat and hot water. "Around the city, 26 of the housing authority’s basement boiler rooms had flooded, destroying the equipment there, and leaving 34,565 apartments without heat and hot water. "

The reply of responsible officials to the plight of the individuals in these apartments was: "The should have followed the evacuation order." Granted, an elderly, wheelchair bound individual on the 18th floor of a building erected on a scrap of barrier island sand should give careful consideration to heeding an evacuation order in the face of an oncoming hurricane. But some of these individuals, for a variety of reasons, don't heed the order.  And we can't just say, as the Grail Knight in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade did: "He chose poorly." We have to help them. An ambulance crew called to the scene of a vehicle splattered against a tree doesn't refuse service to the mangled occupant because he got behind the wheel while drunk.

The first and most important step to help these people is through mitigation of the risks. The New York Times reports that the city is using federal, state and local tax dollars to harden the city to the kind of flooding experienced during Sandy. The next step is to develop and rehearse realistic plans. A big mistake made in many emergency management plans is assuming that their informed citizenry will follow the instructions laid out in the plan. 
When the disaster happens some citizens will not only not have read the plan but will have no interest in written or verbal instructions that they perceive to be contrary to their self interest. 

In 2010 Florida completed our first ever statewide hurricane evacuation study. The study generated estimates for every county of how many people would evacuate for a certain category of storms, and how many of those who evacuate would seek shelter. And for each category of storm the study provided not one answer, but two.

The first answer stated how many people would seek shelter if everybody who was supposed to evacuate evacuated, and everybody who WASN'T supposed to evacuate didn't. The other number used behavioral surveys of the populations in the counties to estimate the evacuation numbers and the shelter populations.

I can tell you right now the next time a hurricane hits a densely populated, urban coastal city an elderly, wheel chair bound individual on the 18th floor isn't going to evacuate. And for all the hype over "Superstorm" Sandy, it was big but the intensity was barely a Category 1. The combination of wind, surge, rain, and tornadoes from a major hurricane doesn't leave wreckage but an array of empty concrete slabs. Just getting to the building is going to be a problem, much less climbing to the 18th floor. And that's assuming that you know that someone's there and has a problem.

When I came home to Florida from New York City after Sandy the problem of the wheel chair bound person on the 18th floor was uppermost on my mind. I tried to get other people interested in the problem but life got in the way.

Me at my first Red Cross deployment - Hurricane Sandy in NYC
A Red Cross friend who served in Sandy called me the other day and said, "I've been thinking about all those people in those high rise buildings in New York City. We need to come up with a Service Delivery Plan for those people."

"You're right," I said. "We need to do that."

"I'm going to talk to some smart people I know."

"Me, too," I said. "I know some smart people I can talk to."

Maybe we can come up with something. Maybe we can even get it done before the next storm comes.

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