Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Disaster Feeding in New York City during Sandy

Hurricane (or, if you prefer, Post Tropical Cyclone) Sandy had a major, but not catastrophic, affect on New York City. Of the four hazards from a hurricane (surge, wind, inland flooding & tornadoes), surge was the principle source of the damage to the city. There was not the extensive inland roof damage from winds that happened in, for example, Wilma. Six months afterward, when I flew into Ft. Lauderdale, I was greeted by a sea of patched, blue roofs. I tried to explain to some New Yorkers that the wind damage was minimal but they protested and showed me their cell phone photos of destroyed, ocean side homes. I had seen such images before, in pictures and in person. What I was unable to convey to them , or they couldn’t understand, was that when a storm delivers surge, wind, inland flooding & tornadoes to a spot, there are no pictures of wrecked houses. There is only, like I saw in Bay St Louis after Katrina, the empty, concrete slabs where the houses had once been.

The City of New York, under the strict supervision of the Mayor’s Office, applied the considerable resources at their disposal to the task of feeding the survivors of the disaster. After tasking the National Guard to deliver shelf stable meals and bottled water to Points of Distribution, the City contracted for catered hot meals to be delivered to fixed feeding sites in the affected area. They also hired a number of the abundant food trucks to perform mobile feeding. These actions were paid for from the Mayor’s Fund, a stash of donated dollars available for use at the Mayor’s discretion.

The American Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Convention contributed considerable resources to the establishment of a mass care feeding infrastructure in the five Boroughs of the City and on Long Island. Three Baptist Field Kitchens were positioned in the City (Staten Island, Brooklyn & Queens) and one on Long Island. In mid-November there were approximately 120 Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) assigned to distribute the production of the 4 Field Kitchens and any additional catered meals.

The Food Banks in NYC, with their associated food pantries and soup kitchens, shoulder the burden of feeding the needy every day during blue skies. With the advent of the disaster their burdens were increased.  The truckloads of donations increased significantly after the disaster, which is a good thing. Receiving, sorting and distributing the additional donations was an additional burden on already exhausted staff, which is a bad thing.

Finally, ad hoc groups of people sprang into existence to take care of unmet feeding needs. The Food Banks and the Red Cross tried to assist these groups with varying success.

When I arrived in NYC in  the middle of November 2012, almost 2 weeks after the impact of the storm, very little of this feeding activity was coordinated. There were, in the words of a friend of mine, “multiple, parallel, non-converging" feeding efforts under way in the City (although parallel is, by definition, 2 straight lines that do not intersect, I add the term “non-converging” for those of you who never read Euclid). After speaking at the recently completed National Hurricane Conference to a number of individuals in the mass care community who served in NYC during Sandy, I arrived at several conclusions that I would like to share with you.

The reasons for the lack of coordination are primarily cultural and institutional. I will deal with the institutional first.

NYC is a hard place to live in on a good day and I imagine is a very difficult place to manage. The successful elected officials and managers in the City succeeded because of the particular way that they solved problems. I am not going to attach adjectives or moral judgments to their problem solving processes. Long ago the 5 Boroughs of the City decided that the best way to manage the City was with a powerful Mayor. Broward County, Florida, with a population of about 2 million persons, has 31 municipalities and a county government without an equivalent, powerful central executive. The problem solving processes in NYC and Broward County are different but satisfactory to a majority of the populations in each jurisdiction. When a Big Disaster Strikes the City the elected officials and managers address this problem the same way that they have been successful addressing Big City problems in the past.

The Whole of Community concept that FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate developed in Florida and brought to the nation emphasizes communication, collaboration and cooperation in the disaster response so that all of the resources in the community are brought together in a Unified Effort. The Unity of Command brought about by a powerful Chief Executive comes at the expense of a Unity of Effort. The fact that the disaster was not catastrophic meant that Unity of Command was sufficient for a successful response. A Unity of Command, that is, augmented by the remarkable and enormous resources at the disposal of the City Government and the admirable hardiness of the New York City survivors.

Another reason for the lack of coordination in the City during the Sandy response was the clash between the Culture of the New Yorkers and the (Southern, Midwestern, take your pick) cultures of the Femites and mass care volunteers who poured into the City during the response. The things that we did and said angered and worried the New Yorkers. How could they have confidence that we would perform when we had that kind of attitude? The things the New Yorkers did and said shocked and offended us. I remember thinking: I volunteered my time and energy to come here and help. Why are they treating me this way?

This was not a good environment for communication, collaboration and coordination.

I don’t believe that NYC is going to change the way that they handle disasters. They have been hit by 2 storms in successive years and they believe that their responses were successful. Why should they change?

They should change because Unity of Command will be overwhelmed in a catastrophic event. Whole of Community was adopted and implemented because Unity of Effort is the best way to respond in a catastrophic event. The City of New York can figure that out now or they can have that conclusion forced on them days or even weeks into a catastrophic event. It’s their choice.