After Sandy, The Question Is, What If?

Successes, shortcomings, and lessons learned
Dell Cullum

    A month after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, devastating areas west of here but sparing the East End from the worst of it, officials in East Hampton and Southampton Towns are still debriefing, examining emergency plans and their efficacy.
    Both towns have reported satisfaction with the way their respective emergency operations centers dealt with public safety, evacuations, road closures, and the like. But the unavoidable knowledge of the storm’s havoc in the Rockaways and other hard-hit communities raises the question: What if?
    Two serious storms in two consecutive years — Tropical Storm Irene, followed by Sandy — and the scientific likelihood of increased similar storm activity here, coupled with eroded shores and sea-level rise, have created a push to examine the state of emergency preparedness and how to keep residents informed and protected.
    “You learn something from each one of these storms,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said Tuesday. He had just attended another review meeting of the various emergency responders earlier that day. “I asked the group this morning, ‘Pretend what happened at Breezy Point happened here. What do we have to improve?’ ”
    “The answer is, better announcements, better communication . . . [and] standardizing things that were just one-off,” he said. “I think the preventative things we did for the first time, such as building some berms in places of ingress, will be something we’ll do from now on.”
    Mr. Wilkinson said he and Highway Superintendent Stephen Lynch made the decision to place piles of sand, trucked in from sand-mining pits, in front of beach accesses in downtown Montauk, an effort he has called key to preventing flooding there. On the night of the hurricane, as water began to trickle across Napeague from a breach in the ocean dunes, the two also made the decision to have Mr. Lynch use heavy equipment to plug the breach, on state parkland, with sand. Mr. Wilkinson said that he called the governor’s office immediately afterward to report what had been done.
    The State Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates work on beaches, allows local governments to take emergency action if the public’s safety is at risk, but is supposed to be notified immediately afterward. Mr. Wilkinson said the town had not involved the D.E.C., but defended what had been done, saying a permit was unnecessary because of the situation.
    He said he had been questioned by some about adding sand from elsewhere to the beach in Montauk. When the D.E.C. does issue a permit to add sand to a beach, it normally requires that the sand be “compatible” with the ecology of the area. “We’re trying to stop something here, as compared to an aesthetic — and it was an emergency,” he said.
    Other issues that came up and could be addressed in future emergency response plans, Mr. Wilkinson said, include providing fuel for town vehicles during a gas supply slowdown (supplies were obtained last month from local marinas), and providing for debris disposal at town brush dumps. Joining with East Hampton Village to cooperatively run an emergency operations center was a success during Sandy that would probably be continued in future storms, Mr. Wilkinson said. An on-call system that would enable the Police Department to call in traffic control officers for extra staffing, similar to one already in place for the Marine Patrol, could be added, he said.
    In addition, Mr. Wilkinson said, “I think that we’re going to ensure that we have the staff . . . local volunteers,” to make sure the Montauk Playhouse can be opened as an evacuation shelter. Last month, the Red Cross, which provides shelter staffing, determined that it could only open one shelter within the town, at East Hampton High School. Mr. Wilkinson asked members of the Montauk Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary to staff the playhouse, which is equipped with supplies, but they declined.
    Both Southampton and East Hampton employed a “code red” system, which can be used to send pre-recorded alerts to residents, such as a warning to evacuate flood-prone areas.
    Southampton had a dedicated, and powered, phone number for residents to obtain storm-related info, and to call in reports of problems and the like, said Lt. Lawrence Schurek of the Southampton Town Police Department, who acted as the department’s liaison and emergency operations coordinator.
    He said he carefully tracked the weather and “put out updates constantly . . . beginning a good week before the storm,” including press releases addressing storm preparedness, providing information regarding shelters that could accommodate people with special needs, pet owners, and others, and informing the public about possible mandatory or suggested evacuations. That information was also relayed to Southampton Town Hall, he said, where it was put on the town Web site and announced in regular radio addresses by Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. “We put out a lot of information to the public, and still are doing that,” the lieutenant said.
     In East Hampton Town, Johnson Nordlinger, Supervisor Wilkinson’s assistant, said in the days after the storm that press releases were not being sent out, but that she was fielding calls with inquiries from residents. The Town Hall offices were without power for several days, although a generator was set up to power areas of the old town hall where some staff were relocated.
    No official statement was made about closing town offices, according to employees, who said they reported to work on Oct. 29, the day of the storm, and the next day, though they were without power, lights, and access to computerized town records.
    Some information was posted on East Hampton’s Web site — for instance, on late Saturday afternoon, Nov. 3, notice was posted that the town was opening a warming center at the American Legion in Amagansett, where residents without power could bring their own bedding to spend that night. A notice about the open hours at the town brush dump, and the suspension of drop-off fees for residents, was also posted.
    “We go to [radio station] WLNG as much as possible,” Mr. Wilkinson said. “I think I was there a couple of times a day.” And, he said, he provided information to East Hampton’s Web site, “because it’s instant.” 
    In the future, he said, public service announcements could be aired, well before any storm, to make sure the public knows what to expect and provide specific tips, such as keeping a battery-operated radio on hand.
    Lieutenant Schurek said that Southampton has a written “broad-based emergency procedures guide.” The “disaster preparedness checklist” lays out in detail the roles and responsibilities of town, county, and state agencies and personnel before a storm, during the emergency operations stage, and in a “post-event recovery stage.”
    “It’s all pretty well coordinated,” Lieutenant Schurek said. “The list is so long; I think we accomplished most of it.” But, he said, not everything goes by the list. “We have a lot of briefings,” he said. “We have to make decisions.”
    In East Hampton, Mr. Wilkinson said, Ed Michels, head of the town’s Marine Patrol, provides “incident management training” to town department heads, laying out “who’s going to do what and what are the protocols for doing it.”
    Whether East Hampton has a written plan equivalent to that of Southampton, Mr. Wilkinson was unsure, but, he said, activities are overseen by Bruce Bates, the town’s emergency preparedness coordinator. Some decisions, Mr. Wilkinson said, such as piling up the sand, are made on the fly.
    In conjunction with the county and several other communities, East Hampton does have an “All Hazards Mitigation Plan,” which assesses the town’s vulnerability to various disasters and provides a blueprint for how to minimize their danger. It is unclear whether that plan informs what is done when a storm or other disaster threatens, or whether the town is pursuing its long-range goals, such as acquiring or relocating structures in areas prone to repeated damage or implementing projects that would help mitigate a storm’s impact on the environment, such as beach nourishment or creating wetlands. However, a number of the objectives mirror those in the town’s comprehensive plan and Local Waterfront Revitalization Program plan.
    Other documents that inform emergency plans include the National Weather Service’s Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes, or SLOSH, maps, which estimate storm surge heights and winds for predicted storms, and are used to determine what areas should be evacuated. Evacuation orders or recommendations are carried out, in both towns, by volunteer firefighters who go door to door.
    Speaking at a town board meeting on Nov. 15, Kathleen Cunningham, an East Hampton resident, said “throwing much more energy into planning” might be warranted. “We have an opportunity to be more prepared, and I think we should really step it up.”
    “There’s not enough of anything for a densely populated area,” she said, referring to the single Red Cross shelter here. “If this had come in August. . . .”
    “I know that we have an emergency plan in place, but we need to step up our reaction, to anticipate things that are maybe more catastrophic than we’re accustomed to,” Ms. Cunningham said.
    As an example, she said, “We really have to get people to have their emergency kits.” And, she added, “As a green energy advocate, we should think about how we can power things.” One idea, she said, in light of the inability for gas stations without power to pump gas, would be to obtain portable solar panels, which can power generators.
    “Some very serious conversations” have already begun, Mr. Wilkinson told her.
    “That’s one of the things that we want to set up,” Lieutenant Schurek said earlier this week. “We have shelter for 400, but what if we needed it for 4,000? We want to get all the things in place.”