Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Sandy Response in New York Shows How FEMA has Changed

Declaring an emergency before the storm makes prepositioning of people and supplies possible.

Michael Byrne is a federal coordinating officer for FEMA in New York responding to Hurricane Sandy.

As Hurricane Sandy approached New York in late October 2012, the change in how FEMA responds to large disasters was immediately apparent.

The Post-Katrina Reform Act now allows us to declare an emergency before the storm, allowing us to preposition people and supplies. We were leaning forward to be in position to assist our local and state partners responding to the largest storm to hit the nation’s biggest metropolitan area.

Before landfall, we staged food, water and equipment in New Jersey to be ready once the storm passed. And my team, one of three national Incident Management Assistance Teams, was in the New York City Office of Emergency Management working alongside our local counterparts.

Within 48 hours of landfall, we had 1,200 people in the field, going door to door in affected neighborhoods of New York City as well as Nassau and Suffolk counties. We put a million shelf-ready meals (including kosher meals) and a million liters of water at a predesignated supply base ready for distribution by the National Guard and voluntary agencies.

I worked for 20 years in the New York Fire Department as well as the New York Office of Emergency Management, so I knew that our response was going to have to be huge. I knew that in a city of 8 million, we were not going to have enough boots on the ground. Luckily, FEMA had planned for that need.

We implemented the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force — volunteers from various homeland security departments who rapidly deployed to New York. This was a new initiative that the agency had started, and it was the first time it was put into place. The participating agencies included the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard and others.

In addition, the new FEMA Corps — which consists of young people between the ages of 18 and 24, who are interested in a career in emergency management — was deployed to New York and participated in response. Hotel rooms were sparse, and we didn’t want to take rooms from survivors, so the Department of Transportation brought in three Merchant Marine training ships to house our forces.

But it wasn’t all FEMA and DHS. All of our federal partners deployed to New York in those first hours. They included the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Defense. The Marines even landed on the beach in the Rockaways.

With NYU Langone Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital, Coney Island Hospital and others taken out of commission, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed Disaster Medical Assistance Teams and set up field hospitals.

The American Red Cross set up shelters and feeding stations across the affected areas. The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and other nonprofits immediately started working on the relief efforts. They went door to door, provided clothes and handed out supplies.

These capabilities of FEMA, its federal partners, and nonprofit and faith-based organizations enabled us to deliver help to a city and state that had never experienced this kind of devastation from a hurricane.

Our priorities were the four Ps: people, power, pumping and pickup (debris). Besides getting assistance funds into the hands of survivors quickly, we helped New York with significant challenges involving hospitals and other public facilities without power and subway tunnels flooded and unusable.

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