Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Sandy Created a Black Hole of Communication
By: on January 28, 2013
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Communication is a fundamental of emergency management and yet an inherent struggle during disasters. Superstorm Sandy was no exception as complaints about a lack of information were common. This came from communities in pockets of the East Coast where information was desperately needed but scarce, according to some community organizers.

Although there were areas hit by the storms that fared well soon afterward, there were “black holes,” where printed paper and bullhorns were needed to get out the word. Social media was a bright spot, as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker showed on Twitter, and in New York City where Emily Rahimi chained herself to her desk at the Fire Department for a day and a half, monitoring the department’s Twitter feed and proving heroic to desperate residents.

The lessons from Sandy have been repeated over and over: Communities should be prepared to be self-sufficient for close to 10 days. That means having food, water, batteries and flashlights, among other things. Batteries were especially important during Sandy or perhaps more importantly, ways to charge them.

The challenges of Sandy emphasized the need for community leaders to become informed about how their communities can help themselves during disasters. Questions about to what degree local, state and federal agencies are responsible immediately following a disaster and which agencies or levels of government were responsible for certain services was a source of confusion for some communities.

Humanity Road is a nonprofit whose mission is connecting aid providers with those who need help. The organization has volunteers worldwide trained to data mine the Internet during disasters for the purpose of fulfilling its mission.

Humanity Road was asked by Maryland and FEMA to help with projects and assisted the New York Virtual Operations Support Team in Suffolk County. The organization saw areas where public information was scarce and a misunderstanding among the public about the roles of state, local and federal government functions during an emergency.

Chris Thompson, president of Humanity Road, said she got to 17-mile-long Rockaway Peninsula in New York seven days into Sandy and she was sitting in a “doughnut hole of a total blackout. There was still no communications to speak of,” she said. There was about a 17-mile by 15-mile square that was completely blacked out.

Thompson said residents shared information by congregating at local hubs like churches, community centers and schools. “They would gather around and talk to each other and say, ‘What do you know?’ Information was not flowing.” She said information was shared via fliers but there was just one printer — the one she had brought.

The fliers were marginally helpful but only available in English for the first couple of days until Humanity Road found a volunteer who could translate the information into three languages. Thompson said that when the nor’easter was on its way following Sandy, she and others were out in the storm relaying messages using bullhorns.

She said that although the community understands what a nor’easter is, many residents were still at home waiting for a knock on the door. “You’re looking at a community that, from what I could see, didn’t have a strong CERT [Community Emergency Response Team],” Thompson said. “There was no FEMA, no Red Cross, no [Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster], no CERT. I don’t know who they thought was coming.”

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Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine.

E-mail: jmckay@emergencymgmt.com


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